Sculptor Benjamin Victor has artwork all over the world, but three statues in Washington D.C. have cemented the Bakersfield native's place in history.
Victor's sculpture of Chief Standing Bear of Nebraska will go on display next month at the National Statuary Hall in the country's capitol, where each state gets to display two statues honoring historic figures from their state.
Having one statue in the hall would be an honor for any artist, but this will be the third for Victor, making him the only living person with that distinction.
At 26, Victor became the youngest sculptor with work in the hall when his first statue, Sarah Winnemucca for Nevada, was put there in 2005. His second was Norman Borlaug for Iowa in 2014.
"It's really interesting because you'll hear often of these unsung (historical) figures," said Victor, a Foothill High graduate who is now 40 and lives in Boise, Idaho. "It's been fun for me to do. It's always a historical journey."
'Chief Standing Bear'
The statue of Chief Standing Bear heading to D.C. will be the third casting of that specific sculpture, which was initially commissioned by the city of Lincoln, the state's capitol.
Victor was excited to help tell the story of Chief Standing Bear, the first Native American to be granted civil rights by U.S. law. In the 1870s, his tribe, the Ponca, was forced out of Nebraska, and one-third of the tribe died within the first year of moving to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. One of those was the chief's son, whose last request was to be buried in the tribe's homeland. When the Ponca returned, they were arrested. Standing Bear sued, and in a landmark case was recognized as a "person" in the eyes of American law.
"He was the first Native American to be recognized as a human being in U.S. law," Victor said. "It's so sad to think that ... Native Americans weren't afforded any human rights. They weren't considered human by U.S. law."
It wasn't long before Judi Gaiashkibos, the executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, and Don Campbell, who commissioned the first statue for the city of Lincoln, got to thinking with Victor about where else they could take the statue.
To get a statue at the National Statuary Hall requires the approval of state elected officials. While waiting for that, a second casting was made for the Ponca tribal land.
"What an exciting final run, for it to be placed fittingly in the capitol," Victor said of the one that will be in the Statuary Hall.
Victor's Standing Bear and a statue of writer Willa Cather, currently in the works by artist Littleton Alston, will replace the state's current statues in the Hall of Nebraska politicians J. Sterling Morton and William Jennings Bryan. Those will be returned for display in the state.
Replacing major Nebraska figures like those "really is a testament to Chief Standing Bear's legacy," Victor said. "It would be a travesty not to have him in the capitol."
Though perhaps not quite the same as being the person honored with a statue of himself in the National Statuary Hall, getting to be its artist is still a major privilege for Victor.
"It was just incredible that I had that opportunity; to this day, I'm still grateful," Victor said of his first statue to go in the hall. "It changed my life. After that, my career just snowballed."
'It came naturally'
Victor was always artistic, he said, and grew up constantly drawing and building things. The son of teachers, he was always encouraged to keep creating. Once he began studying at Northern State University, in Aberdeen, South Dakota, he found his calling with sculpture.
"It really came naturally, and I just loved it," he said. "I was doing a lot of drawing and was really interested in the human form. I picked up clay and felt like I could express myself really readily in clay."
The process of making a statue is complicated, but essentially, Victor first creates a sculpture from clay. When that's finished, a mold is made around it to create the negative space of the piece. From there, it's filled with bronze for the final product.
Always supportive of her son's artistry, Joyce Victor was still taken aback the first time she saw his work in the medium.
"When he went to college and majored in art, we went to visit him and he had just finished a sculpture class," Joyce Victor said. After seeing his work, "I thought, 'Oh my gosh, this is beautiful!' I couldn't believe he did it."
In college, Victor did his senior project on Samson, the Old Testament hero whose long hair was the root of his strength until his lover, Delilah, ordered her servant to cut it off. This was his first project to gain some attention. At 23, he was asked to create a piece for the Aberdeen Regional Airport War Memorial in South Dakota. Soon after, he was commissioned to make the Winnemucca statue, his first in the National Statuary Hall.
"It makes me proud," Joyce Victor said. "I'm in awe still, all the time. I was so overwhelmed the first time (his work went into the hall). The words they were saying about my son was so overwhelming. They had such nice, kind things to say about him."
Those wanting to see Victor's work in person without leaving Kern County can check out his "Monument to Oilworkers" in Taft, where he lived for the first few years of his life before moving to Bakersfield. Two other pieces are right here in town, but an invitation to Joyce Victor's home would be required to see the two busts of migrant farm workers that sit on her shelf.
Victor has created more than 50 large-scale statues, which are displayed in museums, federal offices and other public spaces around the world.
Though Victor keeps plenty busy with commissions, that hasn't stopped him from working on art for himself. Recently, he finished "The Angel," which went on to win first place in a major art competition through the Art Renewal Center. Castings of "The Angel" are currently in Rome, Barcelona and New York City.
"It's been quite an amazing thing to see her take off," Victor said. "That was just a piece I did on my own. It wasn't a commission."
Victor was inspired to make the piece after going to Utah with professional photographer Christopher Peddecord, who was taking photos of dancers. One pose struck by dancer Dayna Marshall was the basis of "The Angel."
"She jumped up and did this beautiful pose in the air and Chris captured it," he said. "All of a sudden, it gave me the idea that she looked like an angel floating in air."
Calling in between meetings in Boise, where he lives with his fiancee and three kids, Victor said works like "The Angel" have taken on a life of their own. He said he can be at a museum, standing right beside his work, and no one will know who he is. Fading into that background, he said, is fun. But so is the recognition of awards and special honors.
"It really means a lot because as an artist, it's a weird career; you're out there doing creative things and hoping that people respond to it," he said. "It's validating."