Alumnus sculptor captures image and essence
As soon as Ernie Banks spotted the seven-foot-tall, bronze sculpture of himself, his eyes lit up. “Oh, wow!” the legendary baseball player told reporters. “I love it!” Then, with a burst of the light-hearted joyfulness that has always been “Mr. Cub’s” trademark: “Long after I’m not here, I’ll still be here!”
It was the morning of March 31st, 2008— Opening Day at Chicago’s Wrigley Field—when baseball officials revealed the sculpture of the great Hall-of-Famer near the stadium’s main gates.
As the veil rippled away from his creation, Lou Cella ’85 found himself swamped beneath a surging wave of emotion. The 46-year-old sculptor, who’d spent the previous four months creating the monumental work of art, was witnessing its powerful impact on baseball players and fans gathered to honor Banks.
“My blood is blue, and I’ve been a Cub fan my entire life,” the Illinois State fine arts and graphic design major would later recall. “So you can imagine how I felt that day, as I watched Ernie Banks react to the sculpture I’d worked so hard to shape.
“I think I was still in the first grade when my dad took me to Wrigley Field for the first time, and Ernie was still playing for the Cubs. I grew up as a fanatical Cubs fan, and I worshipped Ernie Banks. And there he was on that unforgettable day last year, standing with Hank Aaron, Billy Williams, and all these cheering fans gazing up at the big bronze statue I’d made of him.
“I had my dad with me, and I was able to introduce him to Ernie right after the unveiling ceremonies. As an artist who specializes in three-dimensional images of people—and as a baseball fan with a lifelong passion for the Cubs—I can tell you that this was an Opening Day I won’t forget!”
Spend a few hours with Louis Edward Cella III at the Rotblatt Amrany Fine Art Studio in the northern Chicago suburb of Highwood, and you’ll be even more amazed by the company he keeps. Since joining the nationally renowned studio 13 years ago, Cella has sculpted or cosculpted dozens of sports luminaries, including Carlton Fisk, Ty Cobb, famed broadcaster Ernie Harwell, and the well-known football coach Barry Alvarez.
He’s also recreated legendary baseball announcers such as Harry Caray, along with movie stars Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart. All are cast in gleaming steel, fiberglass, or bronze—caught forever in dramatic postures that vibrate with their uniqueness.
“The key to capturing these famous public figures in sculpture is to keep working until the personality of your subject emerges. It’s not enough to just capture the likeness of a subject like Banks or Michael Jordan or Harry Caray. The viewer also has to feel that personality at work in the three-dimensional image you create,” Cella said.
“In the effort to capture that feeling, we work from hundreds of photographs of the subject, and we spend day after day shaping and reshaping the clay model until the temperament of the individual starts to shine through.”
Each new project is a grueling struggle, in which creative playfulness combines with bulldog-like determination to capture the mystery of a human figure in unforgiving metal. Cella brings extraordinary talent and years of preparation to the challenge.
Born and raised in the Chicago area as the son of a mechanical engineer, Cella started “playing with watercolors and doing art” at five. By the time he reached the 10th grade at Hersey High School, he was deeply involved in printmaking, painting, and acting in student theatrical productions. Arriving at Illinois State in 1981, Cella realized a passion that would lead him into the world of monumental sculpture.
“I had a great time studying art at Illinois State,” he said. “It was a very exciting period for me because they had a terrific fine arts program, and a highly regarded theater program, and I was very interested in both. But I was also interested in anything that involved crafting objects and making physical artifacts.
“I remember taking this course in jewelry-making with [Associate Professor] Dennis French, and getting very excited about making these little silver containers. We came up with all sorts of neat designs, and it was an extremely tricky process. You had to learn how to hammer the heated silver into the forms you wanted without breaking it, and I guess that’s where I started to learn about the process of sculpting.”
Another Illinois State highlight occurred when Cella was asked to paint a pro baseball player’s image on a friend’s Manchester Hall bedroom wall. “One of my buddies at the time happened to be Jeff Bergman ’85, who was the younger brother of Detroit Tigers first baseman Dave Bergman. Jeff saw the wall painting I’d done, and he asked me to do one for his brother.
“He liked the painting, and he asked how much I wanted for it. I’d never been asked that question before as an artist, so I just blurted: ‘How about $15?’ He agreed, and that $15 became my first-ever commission for a work of art!”
A few weeks after graduating Cella began working as a graphic artist for a Chicago ad agency, which led to a series of advertising jobs. By the late 1980s he discovered that his true love was for “the three-dimensional stuff” he could make as a sculptor. He enrolled for classes at the Rotblatt Amrany Studio, which was on its way to becoming a major national player in monumental sculpture. The studio is owned by Omri Amrany and his wife, Julie Rotblatt Amrany. Their son, Itamar Amrany, is a sophomore art major at Illinois State.
Rotblatt Amrany hired Cella and gave his career as a statue-maker a huge boost, tapping him in 1998 to cosculpt the giant bronze of beloved Chicago Cubs announcer Harry Caray. He went on to create more than a dozen sports superstars in bronze. His current project is a life-sized tableau for the University of legendary Illinois State basketball coach Will Robinson and one of his top players, Doug Collins ’73.
When crafting such large bronze pieces, Cella starts with a ball of clay that is affixed to a stand (the “armature”). He studies photos and uses calipers for exact measurements, such as the space between the eyes and the mouth of his subject. He scrapes away with a special sculpting tool until the features of the subject begin to emerge.
“It can be exasperating at times, when you can’t seem to get the details right, but eventually, if you just hang in there, it all starts to come together,” he said, acknowledging that the sculpting process also depends on spontaneous and intuitive impulses that can’t be easily defined.
“You’ve probably heard the old stories about how Michelangelo worked,” Cella said when pressed to explain the magic that lies behind his art. “Legend has it that Michelangelo would look at a block of marble and would discover that Moses [one of his better-known subjects] was already in there. All he had to do was to let him out!”
Cella had a similar sensation while working on the Banks sculpture. “I felt that Ernie Banks was in the clay model I worked on for three months. I kept measuring his features over and over again, and then I’d take photos of the model I was making and compare them to the stacks of Ernie Banks photos I had in the studio,” Cella said.
“It’s a very slow, methodical process, but if you’re fortunate and it works effectively, you can bring the metal ‘alive’ by catching the personality in it. That’s a huge thrill for a sculptor, of course; and it’s what keeps bringing me back to the studio each day for another 10 or 12 hours of trying to get it exactly right!”
After finishing the clay model of Banks, Cella supervised a series of steps that culminated in a ceramic mold of the figure. The mold was then filled with molten brass to create the 300-pound sculpture on permanent display at Wrigley Field.
“I’ve been told many times that Ernie’s remarkably cheerful personality seems to inhabit the figure, which is music to any sculptor’s ears,” said Cella, who called working on the piece “just an extraordinary experience.”
There will undoubtedly be many more such moments for Cella, who is also the enthusiastic father of a five-year old daughter, Ondine.
“I really feel blessed in a lot of ways. As a sculptor who specializes in creating public statues, I know that each new project will challenge me to the limit,” Cella said. “For me, facing up to those challenges and doing my best to bring the bronze alive—that’s what sculpture is all about!”
The work of alumnus Lou Cella ’85 will be unveiled on campus this summer with completion of a statue that honors former Redbird head basketball coach Will Robinson and his most famous player, three-time All-American Doug Collins ’73.
Robinson became the nation’s first NCAA Division I African-American men’s basketball coach when he was hired at Illinois State in 1970. He coached five seasons, compiling a record of 78-51 before taking a scouting position with the NBA’s Detroit Pistons. Robinson died in 2008 at the age of 96.
Collins played in the 1972 Olympics, was a four-time NBA All-Star, an NBA coach, and is now an award-winning NBA analyst for TNT. He credits Robinson for imparting
wisdom that has carried Collins throughout his career.
“When I went to Illinois State, I had no idea where I was headed. When I met Coach Robinson, from that moment forward, he was the voice I heard. I just knew he would always tell me the truth,” Collins said. He is humbled by the monument that is made possible through a generous contribution from the family of Donald Franke ’71, a Bloomington resident who is a close friend to Collins.
The statue will replicate an historic photo, where
Robinson is on one knee leaning on a basketball and Collins is posed alongside his coach. It will stand on a four-foot granite pedestal at the north entrance of Redbird Arena.
“We have a rich history here at Illinois State, and I can’t think of anything grander that we could do for Will Robinson than to place him forever in front of Redbird Arena alongside his greatest player,” Director of Athletics Sheahon Zenger said.
“It’s hard to find the words to describe the contrast between Coach Robinson and a young Doug Collins—old and young, urban and rural, black and white,” Zenger said. “The real purpose of this statue is that story.”