If you ask artists to bring another artist's vision to life, says Brooks Joyner, "a lot of them will kind of laugh at you and walk off. 'What about my creative ideas?' "
Joyner was director at the Joslyn Art Museum four years ago when the museum was looking for an artist to create a sculpture that had been conceived and designed more than 80 years ago. . .
They needed an artist who wasn't precious about his art. An artist who appreciated the challenge as much as the creation. And who could act as a project manager for the whole effort.
They needed Matthew Placzek.
Placzek, 46, is the sculptor behind some of Omaha's most popular bronze sculptures. He created "Labor," the now-flooded salute to workers on the riverfront; "Illumina," the entertainers in front of CenturyLink Center Omaha; and "Imagine," the children playing with umbrellas outside Children's Hospital & Medical Center.
He's an artist known as much for his practical talents as his creative ones. Placzek talks about budgets and deadlines without a hint of resentment — he actually seems to enjoy the logistics of an installation almost as much as its creation.
He was the perfect fit for "Sioux Warrior," Joyner said. The sculpture had been created as a small-scale model by John David Brcin, the artist who designed the marble bas reliefs on the outside of the museum.
But the powerful figure of a Native American on a rearing horse was never executed. (The rumor, Joyner said, is that benefactor Sarah Joslyn was disturbed by the horse's exposed under parts.)
Placzek was excited about the project from the start. It wasn't just a matter of blowing up the original model, Joyner said. The artist had to reinterpret the original sculptor's work on a new scale, to engineer it, while staying faithful to the intent of the smaller piece.
"I was just overwhelmed . . ." Joyner said. "Not only by his creative energy, determination and stamina, but his humility in doing this.
"And then he oversaw every detail, bringing it on a massive flatbed truck across the continent to Omaha."
This blend of practicality and creativity is how Placzek has always worked. Even in high school, when he started entering (and winning) wood-sculpting competitions in part to show his parents that art could be a real career.
By 20, Placzek was already supporting himself with his art, selling small wood and metal nature sculptures to galleries all over the country. Omaha's Borsheims has carried his work for more than two decades.
"I've been so fortunate," Placzek said, sitting in his new studio on Leavenworth Street. "This has always been my career. I've never had a quote-unquote job."
But he's always approached art as a job. Methodically thinking through his next steps.
When a downtown developer approached him in the '90s to create a larger bronze piece, Placzek saw it as an opportunity to shift to monument-scale sculptures, something that had always been his goal.
"Through Currents of Time" at Landmark Center led to "Labor" and "Protector" on Lewis and Clark Landing, and the "Airborne Monument" in Heartland of America Park.
And finally to "Illumina" and "Imagine."
He also works in abstracts and with media beyond bronze. (Check out matthewplaczek.com to find more recognizable sculptures.)
Placzek is "a showman," says fellow Omaha sculptor Littleton Alston. And you can see the complexity and ambition of his work grow from piece to piece.
When he was approached about the Children's Hospital installation, he was given extreme parameters. The piece — five bronze children and 24 umbrellas — spreads from the hospital grounds at 82nd and Dodge Streets to an indoor glass staircase.
The internal part of the sculpture had to fit inside of the building's 6-foot-8-inch door and couldn't touch any of the staircase walls when it was mounted.
Placzek also wanted to incorporate LED lights. And he wanted to get as much physical lightness as possible out of the heavy bronze figures. Most of the children are in motion, grounded by one foot, which meant that each figure must be perfectly balanced.
When he sent the pieces to the bronze foundry, the guy there laughed, "They're holding 150-pound umbrellas, they're on one leg, and you're in Tornado Alley?"
Placzek likes to build teams around each of his projects, calling on people all over the country. "It's like building a little building," he said. "You work with an architect and a structural engineer and also a steel fabricator, a mold maker and the foundry."
He has two assistants at his studio — and he depends on his wife, Kim, also an artist, for a ready second opinion.
Right now, Team Placzek is planning how to rehab "Labor" when the floodwaters drop.
"Labor" was his first really big monument. "That was a huge, huge piece. It took almost a year and a half to do it."
He wanted it to feel muscular and strong, almost chunky. And he thought a lot about how it would look with the Missouri River as its backdrop.
Of course, this summer, the river has become much more than just a backdrop. It threatened to swallow the sculpture. That bronze hammer just breaking through the water became one of the iconic images of the 2011 flood.
"To think that one of your pieces is being tested by the powers of nature . . ." Placzek said. "I was shocked and scared and all that, but confident in the structure."
Unless a massive tree comes down the river, he said, the integrity of the sculpture should be fine. He's getting ready to clean, polish, repaint and restore the piece as necessary — while planning a bronze fountain for the Henry Doorly Zoo and working on proposals for new projects outside of Omaha.
That's Placzek's newest challenge. "Illumina" and "Imagine" have brought him international attention, and he'd like to do more work outside of his home state.
"It's an honor and a privilege," he said, "to create public art and be in public places."
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