TAMPA — The city's bronze population, already substantial, keeps growing. Steve Dickey is seeing to that.
Dickey, 63, has become Tampa's unofficial sculptor laureate, having preserved in bronze more than a dozen of Hillsborough's more illustrious citizens, living and dead.
The late La Gaceta editor, Roland Manteiga, leans with a foot against a wall at Centro Ybor, reading a newspaper. Nearby, cigar manufacturing pioneer Vicente Martinez Ybor surveys Seventh Avenue. Historian Tony Pizzo appears in mid-lecture at Ninth Avenue and 17th Street.
"Tampa has been very good to me,'' says the artist.
Currently in his warehouse studio on E Twiggs Street, he's creating more historymakers, busts to be placed along Tampa's Riverwalk. Among the clay faces taking shape are railroad pioneer Henry B. Plant; nurse Clara Frye, who founded Tampa's first black hospital; suffragist Eleanor McWilliams Chamberlain; and an early tribal resident, representing the Tocobaga, Mocoso and Pohoy Indians that the Spanish encountered when they first arrived in Tampa Bay.
Eventually, 30 or more historymakers will punctuate the promenade. Dickey has a contract for the first six busts. Friends of the Riverwalk, the nonprofit group that hired him, has not awarded the contracts for the rest of the project. Dickey figures he has a good chance of getting those assignments, too, "unless I screw it up,'' he says with a grin.
He already has sculptures all over the Tampa Bay area, including in Brandon, Safety Harbor, Tarpon Springs, Clearwater and St. Petersburg. His work can be seen in Sarasota, Fort Lauderdale, Tallahassee, Winter Haven and Gainesville. He did the Ranger Memorial at Fort Benning, Ga., and a dolphin fountain on Staten Island in New York.
Dickey is a rare sculptor: one who makes a living from his art. His commission for the busts is $8,500 each, paid for through contributions raised by Friends of the Riverwalk. For complete-figure portraits, like that of former Mayor Dick Greco sitting on a bench, he charges $45,000 or more. "I don't get all that money,'' he clarifies, explaining that a lot goes to the Sarasota foundry that casts the pieces into bronze.
Dickey got into this lucrative line of art by chance. As a student at the Ringling College of Art and Design, he had intended to become a painter. He took an elective course in sculpting and liked it, doing a lot of abstract pieces. One day, a man in the market for art appeared at the school and asked if anyone could do a Roman-like bust.
"I said, 'Sure, I can.' I hadn't done one yet,'' Dickey says. "But I knew I could. And I did, and he liked it.''
Dickey kept a cast of the bust for shows, and people who saw it asked if he could do portraits. Sure, he told them. He did, and they liked them.
The artist — who lives in South Tampa with his wife, Sandra, who is an interior designer — still produces abstracts. He likes to create variations on the shapes of musical instruments, works he has featured in shows. But most of his work is realism, and much of that portraiture — a specialty fraught with stress.
"Even today,'' he says, "there is a lot of anxiety when these are being unveiled. Because you don't know how people are going to view and see it. Are they seeing it the same way I am?''
To get a better feel for the subjects, he gets to know them as best he can, reading about those who have died and sitting down with the living. It helps him bring out their personalities in the work. He and Greco, for example, met a number of times.
"That was fun,'' Dickey says. "He has some great stories.''
The former mayor says it felt strange to walk into Dickey's studio one day and see himself scattered about in pieces.
"There I am, the bottom half sitting on a bench in clay. My head is on a stick on a podium,'' he recalls. "It really was a funny feeling.''
Having his statue seated on a bench creates a lot of fun, Greco says. "All the time I get email (photos) from people, sitting with the statue.''
Tampa lawyer Steven Anderson, who heads the Friends of the Riverwalk effort to commemorate Tampa's historymakers, says his committee considered the work of a number of artists in west-central Florida before settling on Dickey.
"We just thought Steve had his hand on exactly what we're looking for in a historically accurate portrayal with the kind of materials that we had in mind.''
When composing portraits, Dickey explains, the details alone don't make the likeness. "It's very basic bone structure and muscle elements, and you have to get that right first.''
Women are tougher subjects, he says. When he brings out the lines and folds in the faces of men, they tend to look more rugged and handsome. "But with a woman you have to be careful. You have to keep that tone soft, or she starts looking too masculine or too rugged.''
The first six Riverwalk busts are scheduled to be unveiled next January, so Dickey must have the clay models to the foundry by the fall. The bronze casting is a long process. First, a wax duplicate is made from the mold. Over that, a ceramic coating is applied and baked to a hardness. The wax is melted out to leave a hollow shell. The bronze is poured into the ceramic shell, which is finally broken off. Large sculptures are done in pieces, so workers must weld them together, then erase the weld lines and restore detail with chasing tools.
Because his bronze icons have staked ground throughout the city — advertisements unto themselves — Dickey is often the choice when someone wants a sculpture.
He was fortunate, he says, because few sculptors in the area were doing portraits when he started out in the 1980s.
"I was lucky to be kind of a small fish in a small pond. There weren't any kingfish around, so I didn't get eaten alive.''
Philip Morgan can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3435.