Hockey stars. A legendary entertainer. Heroes of African American history. Inspiring images brought forth from tragic sacrifice.
Crystal Lake resident and nationally known sculptor Erik Blome has depicted all of them in bronze.
Working from a studio tucked into a Crystal Lake industrial park, Blome’s public art can be found throughout the nation in major cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Milwaukee and Montgomery. His works also are scattered throughout smaller communities and suburbs such as Rockford, Waukegan, Bannockburn, DuQuoin, Oak Lawn, Aurora, Naperville and Muscatine, Iowa.
His commissions include work for cities, the federal government, sports teams, colleges, schools and civic organizations. His subjects have included Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall, Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable, George Washington Carver, Wayne Gretzky and Jack Benny.
“We’re very lucky to have the work of such a talented artist on display in Oak Lawn,” says Sandra Bury, recently elected mayor of the community.
Bury was a member of a local Rotary chapter that commissioned Blome to create a 9/11 memorial using steel from the World Trade Center. The 40,000-pound finished sculpture, displayed at the community’s Metra station, features two bronze towers atop steel bases. The towers depict images of first responders and others who demonstrated heroism on 9/11. The piece was recognized with an Illinois Governor’s Hometown Award.
Blome is creating a second piece that depicts a firefighter’s empty boots and folded coat.
“We wanted an uplifting memorial, but the folded coat over the boots symbolizes the loss and sacrifice made by first responders,” Bury says.
Becoming A Sculptor
Blome grew up in Deerfield in an artistic family. His father, an oil painter and graphic designer, ran a design studio in downtown Chicago.
“He did all kinds of important graphic design work,” Blome says. “I worked with him for a while and considered taking it over, but I’d fallen in love with sculpture.”
Blome was a student at the University of Michigan studying English and fine arts when a basic sculpture class piqued his interest.
“I felt it was the most interesting area of art, and the instructor was a really down to earth guy,” Blome says. “He taught me how to cast figures. I was just learning the basics, but I felt like he’d given me the world.”
After graduation, Blome returned to Chicago and worked in his father’s studio, creating sculpture and entering shows on the side. Eventually, the lure of sculpture was too strong to ignore and he applied to Boston University’s graduate fine arts program.
“My dad didn’t understand what I was doing,” Blome recalls. “His reaction was something like, ‘You have the chance to be an artist who makes money, and you want to go do THAT?’”
Blome did, and he moved to Boston, waiting tables and teaching part time to pay for school. Graduate school helped him refine his technique and develop his artistic voice.
After completing his master’s degree, he won a scholarship from Rotary International and spent a year in post-graduate study at the Royal College of Art in London. But after returning to Chicago, Blome encountered a new challenge — how to turn his art into a viable career.
“I really had no idea,” he admits.
He took a job in the membership department of the Terra Museum in Chicago while teaching a summer credit course at the School of the Art Institute. His contacts at the Terra proved fruitful and led to Blome’s first public commission, a life-sized bust of Thurgood Marshall for a Chicago public library named for the Supreme Court Justice on the city’s south side.
More work followed, including bronze portraits of James Jordan, father of basketball star Michael Jordan, for the James Jordan Boys and Girls Clubs of Chicago; a life-size figure of George Washington Carver for a Mesa, Ariz., residential development; and a figure of Martin Luther King Jr., commissioned by Milwaukee’s YWCA.
Though Blome has become known for his African-American subjects, he also has sculpted likenesses of Latino boxer Oscar de la Hoya, members of the Chicago Blackhawks, hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, entertainer Jack Benny and children, a pregnant mother, animals, fishermen and firefighters.
His firefighter sculptures got Bury’s attention when she read about Blome in a Rotary magazine.
“We loved that he had a connection to Rotary and had already done sculptures of firefighters,” she says. “When we saw his work, the expression and emotion just blew us away.”
Creating a sculpture
Blome’s sculptures begin with research as he examines photos and video of his subject. Next, he draws a live model the size and build of his subject, creating facial features from photos. He sculpts a clay model, then coats it with rubber to create a plastic shell. The shell is used to create a wax impression, which is dipped into liquid ceramic slurry.
“The ceramic is the same material used on the exterior of the space shuttle and can take intense heat,” he says.
Next, the hardened slurry is heated to 1,400 degrees, which burns out all the wax, creating a hollow shell with the impression of the sculpture inside. Molten bronze is poured into the mold.
“It glows red for about five minutes, then hardens quickly, and it cools in about an hour,” Blome says. “Then, I break away the ceramic shell, and there’s the bronze cast.”
The cast sculpture is sanded, sometimes colored, and then polished to complete the piece.
Teaching to others
Throughout his career, Blome has continued to teach, serving on the faculties of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Academy of Art in San Francisco and at the Royal College of Art in London. In 2012, he received a U.S. Fulbright Teaching Award, with affiliation at the sculpture department of Helwan University in Cairo, Egypt.
He also was a visiting artist at the American University in Cairo and an artist in residence at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia where he built a fine arts bronze foundry.
“Students tend to have a fresh way of looking at things and don’t take anything for granted,” Blome says. “Because of that, I enjoy the rejuvenation I feel when I teach, asking old questions like it’s the first time and answering everything with an honest perspective.”
Though he enjoys traveling, the availability of large studio space, as well as a family-friendly environment, brought Blome, his wife and children to McHenry County 10 years ago. He calls Crystal Lake home, but he loves the instant camaraderie that is formed when people recognize his art.
“If it’s a place people know, right away there’s an instant connection,” he says. “Through my art, I’m able to connect with people from all over.” mc