You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul. – George Bernard Shaw
Any artist is apt to say that inspiration is where one finds it, but perhaps no such artistic epiphany has ever been fully achieved during the Boxing Writers Association of America Awards Dinner.
As the much-acclaimed creator of several re-envisioned BWAA awards (the Sugar Ray Robinson Fighter of the Year Award, Nat Fleischer Excellence in Boxing Journalism Award, Sam Taub Excellence in Broadcast Journalism Award and Barney Nagler Long and Meritorious Service Award), sculptor Carl LeVotch, 66, is no stranger to such events, at which he is always an honored guest. But the 91st annual BWAA Awards Dinner was different; as the various recipients strode to the podium, LeVotch was forming a more detailed mental picture of what will become his most ambitious boxing-themed project to date.
“I had given it some thought over the last couple of years, but hadn’t been able to fit it all together until that night,” he said of those three-plus hours on June 24 this year at the Copacabana in midtown Manhattan. “The concept owes in large part to Malvina Hoffman’s astounding study of `The Races of Man,’ which was done in the late 1920s and early 1930s. She was a sculptor from Brooklyn, and quite a good one. Some of those works are now on display at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Anyway, I have always been interested in her approach to the study of mankind.
“But the whole thing sort of coalesced for me at this year’s BWAA Dinner. I was seated at a table with the great author Joyce Carol Oates (the recipient of the A.J. Liebling Outstanding Boxing Writing Award) and, by and by, that evening solidified my vision of boxing as a sport for Everyman, and Everywoman. There are stories, I believe, that have yet to be told. Sir Philip Sidney (one of the most prominent figures of the 16th-century Elizabethan age) said that poetry is a picture in words. I went home thinking of that analogy, and more determined than ever to tell my story of boxing in bronze and other visual mediums.”
The process of turning concept into reality, by LeVotch’s reckoning, will take 2½ years and entail travel around the world, during which time LeVotch – who also is an accomplished painter and sketch artist – will utilize modern-day fighters from various countries in poses similar to, if not necessarily identical, to classic art from different periods. For instance, one such piece will owe in part to “The Dying Gaul,” believed to be commissioned between 230 and 220 BC, which depicts a wounded gladiator in a Roman amphitheater.
“I plan to call it `Knockout,’ or something to that effect,” LeVotch said. “I forget his exact words, but what Rodin basically said was, `You can borrow, but don’t steal.’ And we all view certain things differently, don’t we? Da Vinci said the most important thing for an artist to learn is how to see. I think I see certain things in boxing, and I hope to convey that. Those of us who have been around boxing a long time see stuff about the sport that maybe others don’t.”
As an artist, LeVotch admits to having had a wide array of influences, beginning with his late father, Nestor LeVotch, an illustrator, and southern New Jersey portrait artist Michael Miceli. But he cites admiration for, among others, LeRoy Neimann, Auguste Rodin (“His `The Thinker’ is a sacrament, if you will, an outward sign of an inner grace”), Leonardo da Vinci, Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Peter Paul Rubens.
LeVotch has traveled to Europe more than 20 times to study the methods and genius of the masters. Through the intercession of Thomas Foglietta, then the U.S. ambassador to Italy, in 2000 he was granted a five-hour private photo shoot of “Pugilatore/Boxers Immortal,” which served as one of the inspirations for his 17½-inch cold-cast bronze statue, “The Spirit of Boxing,” copies of which occupy a place of honor in the homes of such notables as Oscar De La Hoya, Bernard Hopkins, Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather Jr., Joe Calzaghe, Charles Brewer and Sylvester Stallone.
Another acclaimed LeVotch creation is the life-sized statue of the late former middleweight champion Joey Giardello (cost: $100,000, raised by Giardello’s many admirers), which was formally dedicated on May 21, 2011, in Giardello’s old South Philadelphia neighborhood.
“I knew Joey – not well – but he’s the type of person statues get made for,” LeVotch said. “Every now and then, somebody comes along who shows what can happen in a lifetime. Joey Giardello is one of those guys. I saw Joey not only as a terrific fighter, but as a father who cared deeply for his disabled son (Carmen Tilelli, who was born with Down syndrome). How do you convey all those different sides of a man in coagulated metal? You don’t do it by putting together another `Italian Stallion’ in boxing gloves and trunks. That would be an injustice. Joey was so much more than that. My challenge was to capture the essence of the man as well as a physical likeness.”
If that sounds like something of a putdown of the “Rocky” statue, which stands near the steps leading up to the Philadelphia Art Museum, well, LeVotch won’t argue the point.
“It’s all right for what it is, but let’s face it, it was created for a movie (“Rocky III”),” LeVotch said. “It doesn’t move me. A true piece of art is capable of moving the man on the street. It is an instrument to inspire. It’s been that way since antiquity.”
To the uninformed, LeVotch might sound like a pointy-headed intellectual whose forays into niche boxing art aren’t rooted in the fight game’s nitty-gritty reality. But his boxing bona fides are unassailable; he trains regularly at the Joe Hand Boxing Gym in the Northern Liberties section of Philly, and his devotion to his favorite sport goes way, way back.
“I remember being just a kid, maybe 16 or 17, when Von Clay fought Johnny Persol at the Arena (a since-demolished fight site in Philadelphia),” LeVotch recalled. “After all was said and done, my cousin and I went down to the dungeon-like dressing rooms. We wanted to get a peek at Persol. Gil Clancy (Persol’s trainer) was standing there and Persol was sitting on a table. Gil said, `Come on in, boys.’ It was one of the great moments of my life at that time.
“Another was meeting Bobby Chacon (the former featherweight and super featherweight champion who was 64 when he died on Sept. 7 of this year) when he fought Augie Pantellas at the Spectrum. I got to talk to this young warrior – he was almost scar-free then – for about 10 minutes. What a thrill that was for me.
“I’m going to use fighters from the 21st century as models, but I’d like to dedicate the project to people like Bobby Chacon, Gil Clancy, Bobby `Boogaloo’ Watts and Roger Russell, who allowed me to enter their lives a little bit.”
LeVotch hopes to “unveil one or two gallery-sized pieces,” more or less on the scale of “The Spirit of Boxing,” as early as the 92nd annual BWAA Dinner, the date and site of which have yet to be announced. He expects to expand that list to 10 to 12 such pieces for the exhibit he plans to take on tour upon completion of the project.
“The BWAA is keeping the level of boxing at a wonderfully high level, which is where it should be,” LeVotch continued. “I feel the same way about my work. I want to raise the dignity of the sport. It really is, in many ways, a metaphor for life. I know the process is going to be involved, but I get excited imagining the finished product.
“We, unfortunately, live in a fast-food society. Everyone wants everything, like, right now. But some things shouldn’t be rushed. This is a legacy I want to leave.”
Carl LeVotch / Check out more boxing news and videos at The Boxing Channel.