Legendary scientist memorialized in creation by Aberdeen sculptor
As he worked bits of clay into a model, artist Ben Victor shared his admiration for the man who is known as a giant among men in the field of agriculture. To many in this area, the name Ben Victor may carry more recognition than the name Norman Borlaug.
On Ag Day, March 25, it is fitting that a 7-foot-tall bronze statue of Norman Borlaug of Iowa, shaped by Victor, will be given national recognition as it is placed on a pedestal in Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. The day is the 100th anniversary of Borlaug’s birth.
The names of Borlaug and Victor will be entwined in history as the young sculptor from Aberdeen crafted this bronze statue depicting the scientist known as the “Father of the Green Revolution” and the man who saved an estimated 1 billion lives with his advances in wheat science. Borlaug is known for founding the World Food Prize, which has been called the “Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture.” He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 for his efforts in fighting hunger.
Borlaug collaborated with Mexican scientists on problems of wheat improvement and with scientists from other parts of the world, especially from India and Pakistan, in adapting the new wheat varieties to new lands and in gaining acceptance for their production.
At his studio at Northern State University, Victor said he is honored and awed to have created this work of art that will be seen by millions. On Monday of this week, the statue was placed on its Iowa-limestone base at Grasslands Hutterite Colony at Wetonka. The pedestal, three-foot by three-foot, holds the 7-foot statue. It has been packed and will be shipped to D.C. A few days before the unveiling, Victor and a crew will install the artwork for the public to see.
“The world is realizing what Norman did, and we should make him the hero he should have been,” Victor said. “Borlaug did receive a lot of awards, but he still flew under the radar. It’s a sad commentary on society that many do not know his name.”
“We need to add this type of person to our list of heroes, and his name should be part of our everyday vernacular,” he said. “What he did is much more than important to our lives than some of those in show business.”
Victor didn’t know much about Borlaug until the call for proposals for the statue crossed his desk.
“Since the statue was going to be placed in Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C., I perked up when I saw the letter,” Victor said. “Back in 2005, I’d completed the Sarah Winnemucca statue for the state of Nevada, which was placed in the Hall. When I opened up the computer and started watching videos about Norman Borlaug, I found out what he meant to the world and I wanted to take on this project.”
From his research, Victor said, “Borlaug goes way beyond anything I’d imagined. He saved more people’s lives than any other person in the history of the world. From his life story, I became really truly inspired, and I immersed myself in his life. The work I did went way beyond working on a piece on commission.”
Before he started work on models, Victor dressed in clothes similar to what Borlaug would wear. On a windy day, he took a photographer to a wheat field. There the photographer captured many poses of Victor standing in the field among the stems of grain. Victor wanted to feel how the clothes would fold and move in the wind. He wanted to hear the wind rustling through the wheat.
Photos of those sessions helped the artist transfer from his hands to the clay the feelings he had when he was in that field. Wind was important. Victor wanted to portray Borlaug as a man of action, a serious scientist and a man who cared about feeding the world. He was a man of substance and a man who saved real lives.
A small statue, called a marquette, stands in Victor’s studio along with announcements of the unveiling in Washington. “I’ve done more marquettes (small models) for Borlaug than for any other project. I really wanted to dig in and get the right design.”
Because of his research and deep respect for Borlaug, Victor created five small versions to get to the design he felt most suited the man.
“I wanted to show action but not walking. I wanted to show his deep concentration while taking notes for his research in his notebook. And I needed to do an aesthetically appealing pose. It was a challenge to integrate the wheat as well. It was tricky to get the motion of the wind in the wheat, yet show the heads and the stalks. That’s difficult to do in single solid form like bronze.”
In deciding how to portray Borlaug, Victor said he wanted wheat. “And I wanted wind and I wanted to show him as a serious student so I wanted him with a notebook. The pose is based on one of the most famous photos taken of Borlaug. That was a good place to start.”
“I didn’t want him immersed in a wheat field because then it would be more of a bust. So I figured, ‘What if I put the wheat behind him?’ That would work. The wheat served as a symbol of what he did. The statue ends up with having most of his weight on one leg, almost as if he’s walking. I hope the viewer gets the feeling of motion, wind rustling against his shirt, rustling through the wheat.”
Victor tapped the knowledge of farmers in the area to learn how wheat is planted, to see how it looked in rows and to get the feel of it growing in the fields.
To add details to make the face of a scientist feel alive was a real challenge. Victor said he wanted people to feel like Borlaug was thinking and breathing, which is a cut above a portrait. That’s why he spent hours of time, shaping and molding the clay so that the result shows that intensity. Victor originally sculpted a stern face, but after Borlaug’s daughter Jeanie Borlaug Laub saw the image, she suggested toning that down to give him a more positive look. She pointed out that Borlaug had to be a positive person to handle the many setbacks he encountered. The end product features a slight smile along with the furrowed brow and look of determination.
Victor applied for the commission two years ago. About six months went into making the clay statue and from there, the piece was at the foundry in Wyoming for three months.
Kenneth Quinn, who serves as president of Borlaug’s World Food Prize Foundation and chairs the statue committee, said the statue was funded with private contributions for $268,000.
Borlaug cared so much for the farmers, Victor said.
“His final words were ‘take it to the farmer.’ He was a master at implementing research and traveled the world. He didn’t want research that would sit on a shelf. He wanted those in the third-world nations, those subsistence farmers, to learn from the research and to grow better crops so their families didn’t have to be hungry.”
Through his work on the Borlaug statue, Victor said he learned and appreciates the toughness and tenacity of the man.
“I learned a lot about determination for my life just by studying him,” Victors said. “He was obsessive about his work and his concern for fighting hunger. I’ve become a better person as I learned about the concern that he had for getting the research out to the people so they could have a better life.”