Crafting an Icon
May 28, 2021
By Rob Humphreys ’16MBA
In October, Rollins will unveil a permanent outdoor tribute to the late Fred Rogers ’51 ’74H, beloved cultural icon and creator of the groundbreaking PBS children’s TV series, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Standing over 7 feet tall and weighing more than 3,000 pounds, A Beautiful Day for a Neighbor depicts Mister Rogers in his signature sweater and sneakers, surrounded by children and holding Daniel Striped Tiger, a shy, gentle tiger who is equal parts timid and brave. Other hand puppets, fellow inhabitants of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, adorn the back of the statue, and lyrics from the show’s famous theme song are commemorated in script along the bottom.
Commissioned as a gift to the College from trustees led by former board chairman Allan Keen ’70 ’71MBA ’10H, the sculpture was created by British artist Paul Day in his country studio near Dijon in Burgundy, France. Day is best known for public monuments in London that include The Battle of Britain, the Iraq & Afghanistan War Memorial, and The Meeting Place, a 30-foot bronze depiction of lovers reuniting in St. Pancras International Station.
A Beautiful Day for a Neighbor took 11 months and more than 4,000 hours to complete, with most of the work spent constructing an initial model utilizing wood, steel, aluminum, wire, polyurethane, and 5,000-plus pounds of clay. From there, a team of four people made the molds to cast the final bronze shell. The sculpture ships from France in May, and its location on campus will be announced later this year.
We recently caught up with Day to ask about his design process and how he drew inspiration to memorialize Rollins’ patron saint—or, as Day more accurately clarifies, “one of America’s patron saints.”
We hear there’s an interesting story about how you were selected for this project.
Allan and Linda Keen were vacationing in Burgundy with some friends, and they came across a book of mine. One of the members of their crew suggested they could visit my studio if interested, and they did. I was in the Czech Republic at the time, but my wife was here. I think I drove home toward the end of that week and my friend said the Americans would like to meet you. So I popped over on my Harley Davidson and had a drink with three lovely couples from Winter Park, each more lovely than the next.
Well, it happened they were going on to London, and when they got there by train they saw a big sculpture, The Meeting Place, in this railway station—and they also saw a neon sign that looked vaguely familiar to one in The Alfond Inn. Allan made this link between having been to my studio and having seen my sculpture in the train station, and something clicked in his mind and he thought, we could commission this guy to do a sculpture of Mister Rogers.
As a Brit, how familiar were you with Mister Rogers?
Prior to meeting Allan, I had never heard the name Fred Rogers. But when I Googled him, up came a mountain of information, and of course the first thing I saw was Wikipedia, then I started to watch Fred Rogers extracts from the Neighborhood on YouTube, and I began to get a flavor of who he was. It was a monumental shock, to be honest, to discover somebody so important for the very first time, not only in cultural terms but someone important in terms of morality, wisdom and a voice of sanity in an extremely troubled world.
He obviously managed to communicate the essential heart of the Christian story without being explicitly religious in his language. When you’re speaking to the country at large, he didn’t want to alienate people or be partisan in what he did—he just took the high ground in the way he addressed issues that affect the lives of families. These are perennial issues we face generation after generation. He spoke to a level that could apply to any child, in any family, that took to the essence of what it is to be human.
What should people know about your artistic approach?
I’m not really interested in doing statues of people, but I am interested in telling stories through my artwork. I work in a figurative style, but it’s not entirely traditional. I don’t fit into the contemporary art idiom in my work—it’s too traditional, it’s too classical. I’ve always tried simply to make work that reflects my personality, the way I see the world. I grew up on cartoons and making my own comics, and over the past 30 years I’ve ended up using sculpture as a material to tell stories in a very sort of graphic and literal way. I like to put figures into scenes and allow a story to appear in the frame of my canvas.
How did you decide on the setting of Fred Rogers surrounded by children?
I never saw Mister Rogers as a statue of a man on a plank—it goes against the grain of how I approach a subject. But as soon as I started to research what he stood for, what he did, I felt the sculpture needed to show Mister Rogers doing what he did, and it needed to show something of the character of the program itself, of the Neighborhood. That was how he was known, through the TV set, the puppets, the little documentaries. I wanted somehow to put Mister Rogers in context.
I also felt he had such a sensible attitude and wisdom of life that he wouldn’t have wanted to be celebrated as holier than thou. He always said that everything he did was about celebrating the young lives of children everywhere, so I thought that’s the key to making a successful sculpture of Mister Rogers. It’s to put him in the very heart of children’s lives and have him in the place he’d always want to be, and that is communicating very deeply on a one-to-one level with children.
You worked very closely with Fred’s wife, Joanne Rogers ’50 ’05H, before her passing in January. How did you meet and how did her insights impact your approach?
My wife and I were going to be spending a week in Ohio, in Akron, and that’s not so far from where she lived in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. A light bulb went off and I thought, is there any way I could meet Mrs. Rogers? And it’s very significant to meet the next of kin when one is being asked to make a sculpture about one who is passed—then it becomes really a personal story.
Joanne and I spent at least two hours together, and we just chatted and loved and talked. It was a wonderful contact. Joanne and Bill Isler (former executive director of the Fred Rogers Company) made us feel totally at home and at ease. She’s the great woman behind the great man. I reckon Joanne must have kept Fred’s feet on the ground. The two of them, what a power couple.
Talking to Joanne and Bill about Fred, that made it so personal and visceral in my heart. I felt like I was working for Joanne herself. She was my go-to person, the acid test for my work. If Joanne was happy with it, then I passed the test.
To begin, I was really struggling with the portrait; photographs are a very poor substitute for having the model in front of you. It’s really difficult to build a face in three dimensions, especially if those photographs are not taken with sculpture in mind. Joanne wasn’t shy in giving me some steer. I’m so, so sad she won’t be able to join us for the unveiling. But she did see the finished piece, and I was reassured to find that she thoroughly approved of what I’d done.
What else can you tell us about the design?
It’s figurative sculpture with a little bit of Paul Day influence in it. Although it’s not a relief and in perspective, I tilted the face to an angle and I created a slightly raised view onto it. There is some distortion in the sculpture to make it sort of slightly separate from the world around it. I always like to work in a slightly different perspective to make the artwork appear as if it’s somewhere else. These aren’t figures on a flat base—it has a sort of feeling of the narrative contained within it.
As you walk around from the front to the back, you walk around in the world of real things into the world of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, if you will. It’s almost Shakespearean, isn’t it, the Neighborhood? You go into the unreal world of make-believe to discover the real. It’s there where Mister Rogers dealt with issues that are the fundamental issues of existence, and I want to celebrate the genius of that program and the brilliance of using fiction to delve into the very heart of the real. You have to be in the realm of fiction to understand what it is to be a human being.