Bronze Age

In “Comfort Women’s Column of Strength,” the elevated figures hold hands out of solidarity while human rights activist Kim Hak-sun, who broke silence about sexual slavery, looks on.

When British-born/Carmel-based bronze sculptor Steven Whyte does a figurative piece – like the soldiers of a Bob Hope tribute in San Diego – he sculpts them nearly naked first, and later adds the clothes on top. He says it adds realism and depth to the finished product.

That’s the kind of detail he’s trying to share in a new exhibition at the Marjorie Evans Gallery that revolves around six of his public monumental works that were installed all over the U.S. and England.

“I want to show people what’s involved,” he says.

The show is called Inspiration to Installation, and it’s made up of original clays, molds, plasters, artifacts, narrative text and chronological photos.

He sculpts the head first. For pieces that call for nonspecific faces, he gets friends to pose. He interviews his subjects or their family to create a more precise portrait. He finds period clothing and uniforms to add more authenticity.

He says that he can create a more emotionally vacant expression by removing the highlight of the pupil: “It takes out a little life in the eyes.”

That’s what he did for his city of San Francisco commission “Comfort Women’s Column of Strength.” It’s comprised of three young Asian female figures forming a triangle, facing outward, holding hands.

“Comfort women” is a euphemism for Korean, Chinese and Filipino women and girls who were abducted and forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Army before and during World War II. The United Nations estimates that 90 percent of the women died from disease, injury or suicide, and Japanese officials destroyed evidence and have downplayed it.

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This is one of Whyte’s most famous and controversial pieces. The Japanese city of Osaka cut off ties to its sister city of San Francisco over the sculpture, and Whyte got hate mail.

“So much hate mail,” he says.

But one of Whyte’s guiding principles is a paraphrase of Rodin: “Art’s only obligation is to affect people’s emotions.”

And by that standard, the piece has been very successful.

The Sunset Center show is a rare look behind the curtain, and its closing reception (there was no opening reception) on March 29 promises more behind-the-scenes revelations.

“I’m going to tell stories about monumental failures, about things going wrong,” he says.

Walter Ryce has been an arts writer, calendar editor, culture columnist, sometime photographer, and one-time web content coordinator for the Monterey County Weekly. He began working at the paper, which is based in his hometown of Seaside, in 2007.

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