In his boyhood, David Iles ('77) tromped through the forest and swamp of southeast Texas, encountering snakes, frogs and the occasional family of flying squirrels. So when a group from UNT approached him last year about creating a bronze eagle sculpture, the task seemed second nature.
After a childhood of studying animals firsthand, Iles captures native Texas wildlife in lifelike detail, down to each line in an eagle's feather. His work is familiar to the UNT campus, where 18 of his bronze animals are poised around the Environmental Education, Science and Technology Building. Now, in Iles' latest addition to campus, a bronze eagle hovers on the wall of the Legacy Room in the Alumni Center, located in the Gateway Center.
Idea takes flight
The 15-foot-wide wall relief began as a project to raise money primarily for student scholarships. Iles turned the idea into a work of art, creating an eagle flying back to its nest over a stainless steel image of the UNT campus. Donors are purchasing bronze leaves and branches engraved with their names. The North Texas Exes hope to raise $140,000 in scholarship money from the leaves, which sell for $500 each, and the branches, which sell for $1,000 each.
"It seemed like a natural analogy to make, an eagle building a nest and the individual donations building the fund," says Iles, whose works have also been commissioned by the Dallas Arboretum, the Texas Sculpture Garden in Frisco and Dallas land developer Trammell Crow.
The eagle wall relief took flight with an idea from UNT Regent Gayle Strange ('67) and her husband, Virgil ('68). They enlisted the help of Joe Stewart ('71 Ed.D.), former vice president for student affairs, who found Iles to sculpt the project. Eight sponsors chipped in $5,000 each to pay for the wall relief.
"It's extremely handsome, and it uses the work of a local artist who is closely associated with North Texas," Gayle Strange says. "It's a win for the alumni association, a win for the artist and certainly a win for the scholarship recipients."
The sculpture, which was commissioned in September and installed in February, came to UNT after hours of painstaking work at Iles' studio in the quiet country atmosphere of Bolivar.
"Some people think you have a magic process when you put bronze over something," says Iles, who ran the sculpture lab in UNT's School of Visual Arts from 1987 to 2000. "It's a couple of hours of inspiration, and then a whole lot of tedious work."
Creating the eagle
Iles began with research. He turned to the Elm Fork Education Center in the EESAT Building, where he found detailed photographs of the birds and plastic resin castings of a skull and talons.
After sketching his vision, he set to work with the help of two other sculptors -- his son, Martin ('96), and Vincent Villafranca, a longtime assistant and part-time UNT
They molded the eagle's shape out of plastilene, an oil-based clay. With handheld tools, they etched the eagle's folds and feathers.
"My son is meticulous at detail," Iles says. "I did the main modeling of establishing where everything would go. He would come in and put in fine lines on the feathers."
Then they divided the sculpture into smaller pieces, coated the clay with polyurethane topped by a rigid mold, and brushed the finished mold with wax after removing it from the clay. Rods added to the wax helped keep it rigid and provide a future path for the bronze.
Next, the pieces were dipped into a "slurry tank" where they were coated with a fine cement-like substance. Fine sand and coarse sand, added layer by layer, created a coating strong enough to hold bronze.
And then, the pieces were put in the furnace, set to a roaring 1,600 to 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit. The wax melted out, leaving hollow forms to fill with bronze. Finally, the bronze pieces were welded together, sandblasted and covered with a patina for color.
More than masterpieces
The work may be tedious, but the fruits of Iles' efforts are more than just artistic masterpieces, with his EESAT Building sculptures serving as learning tools for schoolchildren and his latest work benefiting students.
For Stewart, the eagle sculpture also is a stately finish to the North Texas Exes' home.
"We wanted something we could all be proud of," he says. "And I think we have that."
For more information about the project, contact Janine Kraus with the North Texas Exes at (940) 565-4204 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.unt.edu/alumni.