INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - Peyton Manning’s helmeted head weighs 91 pounds and sits on an oversized wooden work table in a sultry work studio on East 65th Street. His feet are at the foundry. Same thing with his hands. Other body parts are being touched up around the city of Indianapolis, or right here at Indy Art Forge, the business and brainchild of sculptor/firefighter Ryan Feeney, a 43-year-old Cathedral graduate who couldn’t have more pressure on him if he was leading the Colts to a Super Bowl.
“Pressure?’’ Feeney said with a laugh as he showed me around his studio. "I mean, it’s only forever, right?"
It’s not that Feeney, a Miami of Ohio graduate in graphic arts and sculpture, is some kind of neophyte. He’s done several impressive pieces that grace different parts of the city – his city. He’s done the Peace Dove sculpture for the Indianapolis Library, the Fallen Deputy Memorial in front of the Marion County Jail and the bronze eagle at the Indianapolis 9/11 Memorial. But this assignment, this gift, this is the work that will make him or break him. This will make Ryan Feeney an art superstar in this town or an abject flop. Everybody, Manning included, will have a strong opinion. Feeney, a glib, self-deprecating former rugby player, is ready.
"Man, I hope Peyton likes it," Feeney said. "I hope he thinks that I did a good job and it was worth the time he spent with us. Very few people have sculptures made of them; it’s a big deal and I’m treating it like a big deal. I hope he has a big smile on his face, shakes my hand and says, 'Thank you.'"
He smiled sheepishly.
"And if he doesn’t, I hope he’s a good liar.’"
So how do you do a statue of a man who is known for his relentless work ethic, his dedication to the pursuit of perfection? Isn’t this a bit like being Martha Stewart’s housekeeper? If anybody is going to notice the slightest misstep, it’s going to be Manning.
That’s why Feeney’s charge is this: Get it right. I mean, this is not some gauzy artist’s rendition of who Manning is or was as a Colts’ legend. This is not Emanuel Santos’ bizarre sculpture of Cristiano Ronaldo. This is not some sort of abstract.
This. Is. Peyton.
It’s Peyton in every detail, from the warning label on the helmet to the knee brace he wore on his left leg. It’s the size of the wrist bands. It’s the veins in his hands, the expression on his face, the cleats on his shoes. It’s why equipment manager John Scott has been such a frequent visitor to Feeney’s studio, to go over the details, the little things that make Manning unique.
"I’m trying to bring the same attention to detail in this statue that Peyton always brought to football," Feeney said.
I wish I could tell you more about the statue, or at least show you photos, but I am sworn to secrecy. I can’t tell you if it shows him throwing or standing over the offensive line while calling an audible – apple or Omaha? - or doing a Papa John’s commercial, but I’ve seen the models, seen pieces and parts of the bronze sculpture, seen Peyton’s 91-pound bronze head, and it’s utterly extraordinary.
After an hour of talking and sweating in his studio – it was 95 degrees or so Monday – we decided to walk through the parking lot to nearby Bier Brewery. After a frosty libation, or maybe two, we walked back to my car and Feeney asked an earnest question:
"You’ve seen it," he said. "What do you honestly think?"
I smiled, and this wasn’t the beer talking.
"I think it’s incredible," I told him. "I think your life may be about to change, too."
Feeney smiled. We parted ways, promised to play golf together. That was the end of our meeting. But just the beginning of the story.
When the word came down that the Colts were going to commission a sculpture of Manning outside Lucas Oil Stadium, Feeney knew he had to take his shot. It was a bit of a Hail Mary; there were bigger names out there, national names from East Coast to West. But again, Feeney was no piker, having several pieces of work around town, and how often do you get a chance to work on a sculpture that will be a civic centerpiece for hundreds, even thousands of years – or forever? In your own city, no less? Feeney had to take his shot.
So he made some calls, found out who the point men were on this project, and went to work.
Then, in one of his interviews, he was told by Colts executive Pete Ward he had the weakest portfolio in the bunch.
"I agreed with him: I was going up against people who had seven full-sized sculptures and teams of artists working on each one, and I’m the only one here, just a firefighter (for the Indianapolis Fire Department) in town," Feeney said. “But I said to him, 'Let me answer this like a backup quarterback. You’re asking the backup why my numbers aren’t what Peyton’s are. Well, I haven’t gotten the opportunity.' I didn’t say, 'Well, look at Tom Brady,’ but what I did say was, 'If you give me that opportunity, I’m 20 minutes from you, you can have as many meetings with me as you want, I’ll re-do his face 20 different times if you want me to, we’re going to get this thing exactly the way you want it.'"
"Everybody’s been given that one big chance to either make or break. I’m approaching this as my make-it moment because this is a worldwide piece that people are going to see all over. I've shown people the actual sculpture and said, 'OK, tear me apart.' Like art school, don’t tell me what you like about it, tell me what’s wrong with it. You see the controversy surrounding other sculptures, like the (Cristiano) Ronaldo or the ugly Lucy (Lucille Ball) sculpture. I mean, this is forever. There’s a reason the Colts (Ward and equipment manager John Scott) have been here seven times."
As you most certainly expected, Manning is very much involved. After Feeney got the assignment of a lifetime, the Colts arranged to send Feeney on Jim Irsay’s private jet to Nashville, where Feeney and his photography team met with Manning in an airport conference room. There, Manning dressed up like he was a Colt once again, wore the old white-and-blue, the old knee brace…everything.
"It was totally surreal,’" said Feeney. "I’m 5-6 and he’s 6-5 and he looks like he could carry me in a baby’s carriage, like I’m standing in a hole. We were going to take pictures of him throwing and he said, 'I’ve got to throw to somebody,' so I said, 'Well, don’t throw it to me because if I drop it, you’ll get all mad at me.' I was trying to make a joke, but he didn’t laugh, and I’m thinking, 'Uh-oh.' After that, I was like, I don’t want to waste his time; I was as serious as he was. So then we’re doing audibles and he’s up there in this conference room and he’s screaming out '52’s the Mike, 52’s the Mike,' and he’s really getting into it while he’s calling out to Marvin or Reggie, saying 'Apple, apple.' We’re like, 'Isn’t it supposed to be Omaha?’ 'No, it was apple in Indianapolis and Omaha in Denver.'"
The only problems the project has run into have come at his fire station. See, sometimes he leaves his small clay models out on his desk. That’s where other firefighters get involved.
"Sometimes I go on a run and come back and he (mini-Peyton) has an extra appendage," he said, laughing. "I swear, those guys are like children."
By now, most of it is finished – without the extra appendage -- with the biggest portions of the statue now at the foundry. It’s on or ahead of schedule for the dedication Oct. 7 and the Colts game Oct. 8.
Michaelangelo said the following about sculpture: "The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection. Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it. I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free."
Feeney does not work in marble, but metal. But he has seen the angel in his materials, and has constructed a masterwork that will live on in downtown Indianapolis for as long as there’s a downtown Indianapolis.
"You’re not just telling me you like it, right?" he said again.
"I’m not just telling you I like it," I told him.
I am telling everybody: You will like it. You will love it. And so will Peyton Manning. Down to the last detail.