Sport Artist struggles to capture football star in bronze – but how hard can it be?

Artist struggles to capture football star in bronze – but how hard can it be?

Mohamed Salah statue
Oh no, that aint Mo'! The now infamous Mo Salah sculpture. Photo: AAP
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Some things can’t be undone as much as they can’t be unseen.

When the bronze statue of Egyptian and Liverpool football star Mohamed Salah was unveiled at the World Youth Forum in Sharm El-Sheikh recently, the internet self-combusted with incredulous football fans who mocked metal Mo’ mercilessly.

Was it Margaret Thatcher on a bad hair day? Leo Sayer being tickled? Art Garfunkel receiving another royalty cheque?

One thing that it wasn’t was a likeness to Liverpool’s goal machine.

Just how hard can it be for an artist to get the likeness of a famous footballer at least in the same postcode as the subject?

Lis Johnson should know.

Johnson is one of Australia’s leading sculptors and has immortalised in bronze the likes AFL legends John Coleman, Jim Stynes and Kevin Bartlett, along with tennis great Rod Laver and cricket immortal Neil Harvey.

Her statues line the ramparts to the MCG and Rod Laver Arena, as well as other stadiums around the country. Mercifully, they’re all instantly recognisable.

“I was shocked and burst into laughter – it’s not good is it?” Johnson said, though she does feel for the artist Mai Abdallah.

“I feel sorry for her. You don’t have something cast in bronze and presented to the public without a lot of people telling you it’s fine.”

Johnson understands the pressure that comes with capturing a sporting icon perfectly. With the Bartlett statue she left nothing to chance.

“I met Kevin, had lunch with him and then measured his skull. The skull doesn’t change that much through your life. Even with Rod Laver I was able to get some actual measurements”.

“With Rod it was quite funny. He was sitting there looking at the table with my callipers and measuring instruments as though I was going to be torturing him, he was quite amused!”

Lis Johnson & Rod Laver
Lis Johnson with Australian tennis great Rod Laver. Photo: AAP

For the artist the big reveal when the cover is pulled away to reveal the finished work can be quite terrifying.

“I describe that moment as the most excruciating I experience in my life”.

“When they pulled the veil off Neil Harvey it was an older cricket crowd. Everyone clapped politely and didn’t move and stayed silent for what seemed like four minutes.

“I was looking at the sculpture thinking, ‘come on, it’s not that bad’. Then someone motioned to me that Neil Harvey was looking for me and he was crying. He’d been standing there looking at the statue and was too emotional to turn around.

“Often I get the person to have a look at it when it’s nearly finished and sometimes they suggest small changes but once the clay model goes to the foundry at that point it can’t be changed,” Johnson said.

Though she has tried. When Bartlett’s statue was done, she felt the Richmond hero’s legendary combover needed a bit of late panel beating.

“I did try to fix it up. There he was, the huge KB statue on its side and me with the angle grinder giving his hairdo a bit of a tweak”.

Lis Johnson
Lis Johnson hard at work giving KB’s comb over a touch up.

It seems that every sports stadium around the country needs a bronze icon planted on a plinth out front to greet fans as they arrive for game day. Johnson said it reaches back to an ancient tradition.

“It harks back to the Roman gladiator Colosseum days. Architecturally, those stadiums function in the same way – it hasn’t changed that much.

“It’s part of the tradition of commemorating heroes”.

Hopefully for Mo Salah, there’s an artist on Merseyside with callipers and a measuring tape who’s prepared to measure him up some time soon.

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