When an 8-foot-tall, 800-pound bronze roadrunner is unveiled outside the Icardo Center at CSUB on Thursday, families of the region will receive a gift that will last generations: a stunning piece of public art created by one of the most acclaimed sculptors in the United States.
But that sculptor also will receive a gift: the chance to express his deep affection for both his hometown and CSUB, where he spent countless hours in high school playing basketball and cheering on his beloved ’Runners.
"I was there for every Cal State home game," said Ben Victor, who was born in Taft and raised in Bakersfield. "We were there for the perfect season. We cheered on Reggie Philips and got to know all those guys. I'll never forget it. For me to do a piece at Cal State Bakersfield, that's where my heart is."
The towering, incredibly detailed roadrunner sculpture is the focal point of the Harvey L. Hall Family Plaza, which officially opens in a small ceremony Thursday following months of construction and beautification. The plaza is a tribute to the former Bakersfield mayor and California EMS pioneer, who, like Victor, was an avid fan of CSUB basketball.
"Dr. Zelezny and I announced plans for the Harvey L. Hall Family Plaza on what would have been my husband's 78th birthday on January 5, 2019, before a capacity crowd at a Roadrunner basketball game," said Lavonne Hall, whose family made the generous gift to construct the plaza. "The result is even more beautiful than I had imagined.
"I cannot wait to see the bronze roadrunner placed on the pedestal, welcoming students and the community to the campus. It will serve as the cornerstone of this project and a symbol of pride for past, current and future CSUB Roadrunner alum."
CSUB President Lynnette Zelezny said the Hall family's gift will offer a beautiful, festive space for CSUB students, faculty and staff, as well as fans and families from the community who convene outside the Icardo Center before games and other events.
"Once again, this incredible family has put the Bakersfield community first with the gift of the Harvey L. Hall Family Plaza," Zelezny said. "CSUB is so incredibly moved and honored by the friendship and unwavering support of Lavonne and the entire Hall family. Their dedication to service and caring is a shining example for all of us to follow."
A rare chance to see the work of a master in Bakersfield
When visitors to CSUB see the roadrunner for the first time, they will have the rare opportunity to appreciate the incomparable skill of the only living sculptor to have three works on display at National Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol. The hall attracts thousands of visitors every week with its stunning statues that depict prominent Americans from every state in the U.S. Soon, Victor will begin work on his fourth commission for Statuary Hall, a bronze of civil rights icon Daisy Bates, who played a leading role in integrating Little Rock Central High School in 1957. But first Victor will head to Bakersfield for the roadrunner unveiling. He will share the moment with his entire family, including his mother, Joyce Victor, who works in the Teacher Education program at CSUB.
"It will be so special having my family there because I had a lot of encouragement from my parents, grandparents and teachers. My mom and dad encouraged me to go into art. I didn't think it was practical, but Dad said, 'Follow your heart, do what you love and even if you never make a dime at it, you'll be a success.' For me, it's worked out as a great career as well."
Over his entire professional career, Victor, 42, estimates he's done about 100 sculptures, and though they all mean a great deal to him, the Roadrunner is special because it is for Bakersfield, which he still regards as his hometown though he has lived in Boise, Idaho, for years.
"I'm 20 years into my career, and it's still very exciting. It never gets old for me. Having a piece in Bakersfield doubles that for me."
Victor was commissioned to do the project, which was funded by the Hall family, in January. He started on the roadrunner in February, following the same pattern that guides all of his projects: with copious research. He studied taxidermy models of the bird and reviewed anatomy diagrams and birdwatching guides. His work is so highly detailed and meticulous that he counted the feathers and captured how they lay on the bird. He also noticed another quirk: the roadrunner's feet. Two toes point forward and two toes point backward.
"It's an amazing, unique bird and it's really powerful at this scale."
Victor begins his work in clay before casting the sculpture in bronze. He finished applying the final coats of patina just days ago. The massive bird was transported to Bakersfield earlier this week, where it sits under a tarp at the Harvey L. Hall Family Plaza until its unveiling Thursday.
Victor and his first Kern County work: the Taft Oilworker Monument
Though Victor couldn't be in Bakersfield on Monday to supervise the installation, his creation was in the trusted hands of his friend Dave Noerr, who owns a crane company and also happens to be the mayor of Taft.
Victor and Noerr became acquainted more than a decade ago when Victor was commissioned to build the Taft Oilworker Monument for the town's 100th anniversary in 2010. The monument is a breathtaking large-scale work, featuring many early oil workers, families and a 1910 drilling rig.
"It's such a huge sculpture, the largest all-bronze sculpture this side of the Mississippi River," Noerr said. "And it's a sculpture that will live on for eons. He took the honor very seriously, and it shows in his work."
Victor has returned to Taft many times over the years to visit his work. The distance that comes with the passage of time always gives the artist a new perspective.
"When you're so close to it, working so hard, you get so involved in the creative process that it's hard to step back when you're in it. Ten or 11 years later, you can look it almost like a viewer would. You're as close as you'll ever get to that point."
Like the Taft project, the roadrunner will be outside, under the blazing Kern County sun to withstand the elements. Noerr has a word of warning for CSUB: "Even though your sculpture is a bird, birds will not be kind."
For maintenance, the Taft team pressure-washes to "remove foreign matter" and hand-rubs the monument with paste wax and a bristle brush. But the patina that develops over time only adds dimension and drama to Victor's work.
"It's a sculpture of a 1910 drilling rig and the men who worked so hard," Noerr said. "And it will weather in the elements just like the men and women have who've worked in the industry for a century."
Following the unveiling Thursday at CSUB, Victor plans to reunite with Noerr at the Oilworker Monument this weekend for Oildorado Days, a celebration of Taft's heritage. He'll bring along his wife and newborn daughter and show them the places where he grew up, including Foothill High.
"It doesn't matter how far you go away or how long you're gone, there's no place like home," Victor said. "I go back at least every year. I am amazed at the growth and changes that have happened. Art is growing in Bakersfield, and I love that.
"Especially driving in through Tehachapi pass, coming down the hill on 58, there's just something about that drive. You get that warm feeling in your heart that you're coming home."