By Terry Conway
Close your eyes for a minute. Imagine the scene. Barbaro is roaring down the stretch in his runaway victory in the 2006 Kentucky Derby (gr. I).
"I wanted Barbaro elevated up in the air where he's at the top of his game," explained King from her home in Middleton, Wisc. "As fast as he was galloping in that stretch run, I had to do everything I could to make him look like a bullet whizzing by."
The centerpiece of a memorial being constructed at Churchill Downs in Louisville, King's statue will be 15 feet long from tail to nose and 10 ½ feet from the surface of the track to the top of jockey Edgar Prado's head.
King was one of a select group of ten artists who submitted one-third-scale model clay replicas for the owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson to evaluate.
"For a static sculpture, it moved it, really did," said Leonard Lusky, who was hired by the Jacksons to manage the project. "Barbaro was a horse brimming with power and confidence. Alexa nailed it."
Born in Muncie, Ind., King came to her art at an early age. Influenced by her parent's artistic talents, she developed an eye for form and dynamism that was expressed through drawings, pastels and oils.
When her father was named the post commander at the Army Camp of Atterbury in southern Indiana, horses came into her life. King spent countless hours riding the tank trails and fording streams over the 31,000 acres.
King discovered the power of three-dimensional forms at Ball State University. The artist transferred her expression from clay to bronze and staged a one-woman show at a gallery in Scottsdale, Ariz. in 1981. After sculpting the "Pony Express" series for the Nelson Rockefeller Collections, in New York City, her career took off.
Earlier this year she completed a nine-foot outdoor bronze and tableau set at the entrance to the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine. Her portrait bronze of "Saluter" will be installed at the Virginia Gold Cup, in Plains, Va.
King has bred and raised top-level English Hackney and American Saddlebred horses for more than two decades in Wisconsin and Kentucky. She and her husband, Eric Bolland, are relocating this fall to a 13-acre farm on the Kentucky River in Versailles, Ky.
On the Barbaro project, King pored through scores of photographs and videos of the colt. She also studied a series of photos by noted English photographer Edward J. Muybridge, known as "Horse in Motion." He was the first to prove that all four legs can be off the ground while a horse gallops.
"Initially I determined that Barbaro was about a foot off the ground," King related. "Then I spoke with (trainer) Michael (Matz) and he put it at more like 16 inches so that was built into the design."
In one photo, Barbaro's nostrils are flared wildly as he pulls air in, re-energizing his stride.
"So he's breathing in and then he's going to step back down on the track and push his stride forward," King explained. "He's getting oxygen back in all those muscles then he's shooting himself forward again. It's really cool.
"There are muscles on his hips and stresses on his tendons that I'll accentuate on that lower left hind leg. It will get that message across of him moving forward."
Too large to fit in her studio, King used the garage at her house that was originally built to hold a sailboat. An armature (steel structure supporting the clay model) holds everything in place. King cut four-feet by eight-feet sheets of insulation foam into the shape of the horse, then glued it all together, planed it back and created the form of the horse and jockey.
Next came the detailing of the clay model that King accomplished by using her hands, along with clay tools that have sharp cutting edges. As she applied clay to the model, King also cut back the areas that define the surface of the model. Specially made steel looped tools allowed her to smooth the surfaces.
"The final application of clay energizes the surface of the model which is so important in a sculpture of a running horse," King noted. "It's a hands-on process, sculpting a statue of this size; bulking out the figure takes a lot of wax based clay which is heated under lamps to facilitate the ease of application to the model."
When it cools, the clay is easily carved to integrate the detail that a piece such as Barbaro demands. Approximately 300 pounds of clay have been used in the model to date.
The model's completion is projected by the end of October and mold makers from Bronze Services of Loveland, Co. will arrive to cut it into roughly 20 pieces that will be shipped to the foundry in Loveland. The piece will be cast in bronze and welded back together into the 1,500 pound, life-size bronze.
The sculpture will be installed in front of Gate 1, adjacent the grandstand and the Kentucky Derby Museum entrances, before next year's Derby on May 2. Barbaro's ashes will be interred beneath the statue.
All four legs off the ground, Barbaro is racing a couple paths off the rail with jockey Prado hunched over the steely colt. Look closely and you can see a single-minded expression on Barbaro's face.
"That's how Gretchen and I remember him," said Roy Jackson. "It captured what Barbaro loved to do best, run fast."