“I’m excited because it’s great to do substantial public art in the town you live in,” says Michael O’Kelly. The local artist has been commissioned to create a sculpture in honor of Miriam Schwab, the philanthropist who left a multimillion dollar endowment for Ventura College’s music and aquatics departments.

“People need to know about someone like Miriam,” O’Kelly says, adding that the endowment is “huge.” “It means a whole bunch of kids will have instruments that may not have been able to afford instruments. They’ll have opportunities they never had before. To me the sculpture is very important. First of all, it memorializes her, but it memorializes generations to come.”

O’Kelly, who created the ceramic tile “Ventura Historic Mural” on Main Street in front of the San Buenaventura Mission, was brought to Schwab’s attention by Robert Lawson, department chair of performing arts at Ventura College and music director/conductor of the Ventura College Symphony Orchestra. (He’s also one of O’Kelly’s longtime friends.) Although O’Kelly and Schwab never actually met, Schwab personally selected him to create her memorial, with the understanding that the statue would honor not just Schwab, but the performing arts as a whole.

Set to be completed this August, the bronze statue will depict a dancer holding a violin, a nod to the fact that Schwab played violin with the Ventura College Symphony Orchestra for many years. The work will also depict other elements, including a music lectern, a book, some text about Schwab and some quotations that “relate to learning, imagining, thinking.” The work will be set in concrete that will most likely include ceramic artwork as well. It’s still a work in progress, O’Kelly says.

Preliminary computer rendering of the Miriam Schwab memorial statue, designed by Ventura artist Michael O’Kelly. Courtesy of Michael O’Kelly

The process began with O’Kelly sketching out some ideas. “I start off with my drawings,” he explains. O’Kelly’s wife, Gisele, a dancer, served as the model. “I create various angles and options for what the sculpture is basically going to look like,” he says. Then, with the help of animator Marcus Trahan, the drawings are turned into a digital 3D rendering that can be refined. “I can change anything,” O’Kelly explains. “I can move a finger up here. Move the hair. Whatever.” Once the rendering is where he wants it, it’s sent to a 3D printing company that creates a full-size mold. This then goes to a foundry in Oxnard, where a wax sculpture is created from the mold. At that point, O’Kelly can “detail it out.” A mold of the wax sculpture is created and then, Kelly explains, “the bronze is poured and we have a 10-foot high bronze sculpture.”

All the work on the concrete base will be done onsite and, as of now, O’Kelly isn’t sure how much ceramic work will be featured on it. 

The finished memorial will stand in the courtyard by the Ventura College Performing Arts Center. Getting it there will be interesting. “The statue will be brought in by crane. That will be the most nerve-wracking moment. We’ll want to do it in the middle of the night when no one is looking,” O’Kelly jokes.

All kidding aside, O’Kelly is serious about the importance of public art, and he wishes Ventura had more of it. “It’s very important, in my opinion, that you make public art that causes inquiry,” he says. “Public art is missing in this town . . . When people go on holiday to Europe or Mexico or someplace, one of the things that’s noticeable is the amount of public art. Sculptures on the street. Sculptures in the park. That’s the kind of thing people remember and I hope we get a lot more of it.”

Thanks to the generosity of Miriam Schwab, Ventura will be getting a notable piece of public art that honors her and the power of the arts to inspire, educate and make life more meaningful. At a time when funding for the arts is in danger, O’Kelly points out that when you spend money for the arts, you “get it back tenfold.”

Sometime later this summer, you may look to the skies and see a bronze dancer floating on air. But for generations to come, the dancer and her violin will be outside the Ventura College Performing Arts Center, inspiring onlookers and paying tribute to a woman whose generosity lives on. 

Follow artist Michael O’Kelly on Facebook at www.facebook.com/roderrickmokelly.