New documentary about local sculptor airs nationally

by Len Lear
Posted 3/19/21

Zenos Frudakis, 69, a Glenside resident for 34 years and sculptor who created the controversial statue of former Mayor Frank Rizzo and more than 100 large statues all over the world, is the subject of a new documentary film that will be airing on public television stations.

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New documentary about local sculptor airs nationally

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Zenos Frudakis, 69, a Glenside resident for 34 years and sculptor who created the controversial statue of former Mayor Frank Rizzo and more than 100 large statues all over the world, is the subject of a new documentary film that will be airing on public television stations around the U.S. throughout the year 2021. The program “Articulate,” hosted by Jim Cotter, premiered in 2015 and was only seen then on WHYY-TV in the Philadelphia area, but the Emmy Award-winning show, which profiles artists, authors, musicians, etc., is now seen on 110 public television stations.

“Jim did a piece on my work four years ago when his show was just local,” said Frudakis last week, “but that was just 15 minutes, so he called me after the pandemic started and said now that his show in national, he'd like to do a longer documentary about me. He came to my studio, and we wore masks. It is always a pleasure to talk about yourself. It has aired so far in New York and a few other cities, and I was told it will be seen in Philly fairly soon. Jim said he may do a couple hour-long documentary on me down the road.”

One of the great things about his work, Frudakis said, is that he gets to interview famous people at great length whom he has sculpted like Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. “One thing I discovered that they have in common is that they work so many hours at their craft. Jack Nicklaus said he would hit so many balls every day that sometimes his hands would bleed. Arnold Palmer said it's a funny thing that the harder you work, the luckier you get. I am working on sculptures of several prominent people now whose names you would know, but I can't say who they are.”

Frudakis was called “The American Rodin” on the Japanese version of “60 Minutes.” He has been compared to Bernini, Michelangelo, Rodin, Brancusi and other legendary sculptors, past and present. But Zenos is best known in Philadelphia for just one — the highly controversial Frank Rizzo statue that stood in front of the Municipal Services Building until the George Floyd demonstrations starting May 30 last year persuaded Mayor Jim Kenney to have it taken down. Frudakis used clay on the statue that had been handed down by D.C. French, who sculpted the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

The nine-foot-tall bronze statue, which was removed in the early hours of June 4, weighs more than a ton and was a lightning rod for controversy ever since it was placed across the street from City Hall in 1998. From the beginning there were calls to take it down, and it was often spray painted with graffiti. Opponents, primarily African Americans, have called Rizzo a “racist” (he once publicly urged his supporters to “vote white”) while many others, mostly white working class Philly residents, idolized Rizzo for being “tough on crime.”

During the chaos in center city on May 30, rioters attempted to set fire to the statue and hit its head repeatedly with a hammer. Frudakis, of course, was disturbed to see this attack on his creation, but he also had a reaction one might not expect. “I do understand the strong feelings about it,” said the sculptor, “and I had no objection to having it taken down and moving it, possibly to South Philly (where Rizzo was born and raised and where he still has many passionate supporters).

“What they did was silly, though, because bronze does not burn, and the man with the hammer probably hurt himself more than he did the statue. But the most important thing for me is that I did not want to see anyone get hurt. People have been badly hurt or even killed by falling statues.”

Interestingly, Frudakis' own politics are about as far away as those of Frank Rizzo as possible. “George Floyd was publicly lynched by cops hiding behind a police uniform and badge, similar to what some soldiers do in war,” he said. “I am probably to the left of Bernie Sanders.”

Frudakis, who came to Philly in 1972 to study at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Fine Art, is no stranger to controversy. In 2017 he sculpted a statue of Clarence Darrow, a famous liberal lawyer who had been hired by the American Civil Liberties Union to defend John Scopes, a high school science teacher who was put on trial in 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee, for the “crime” of teaching evolution. Frudakis' statue was placed in front of the courthouse in the small Tennessee town of Dayton near one of William Jennings Bryant, the famous lawyer who prosecuted Scopes (who was found guilty and fined $100).

“Before the statue was erected,” said Frudakis, “a lady minister holding a shotgun said she would shoot me if the statue was put up. A non-profit organization hired an armed guard to protect me, and the story was on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. The lady was like a character from the Beverly Hillbillies. I was actually more afraid that a guy with a deer rifle would pick me off from long distance.”

For more information, visit zenosfrudakis.com. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com

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