In the spring of 2011, Brandon Walley and Jerry Paffendorf were hard at work in Corktown. Starting with two long-vacant houses near Michigan Central Station, their group, Imagination Station, had dedicated itself to commissioning local public art projects.
They'd already helped make a few attention-getting pieces a reality, such as the Hygienic Dress League sign that once graced on the Roosevelt Hotel with solar-powered neon seagulls, or "Monumental Kitty," Jerome Feretti's brick-and-mortar sculpture near the old Tiger Stadium site.
Sitting in an Eastern Market coffee shop many years later, Walley recalls those exciting times. "It was our mandate to think of creative stuff we could do with art to call attention to the neighborhood while supporting local artists," he says.
And then, 10 years ago this month, some wag tweeted at Detroit Mayor Dave Bing that Detroit needed a statue of RoboCop. The reason: Philadelphia had a statue of Rocky, and RoboCop "would kick Rocky's butt."
The post lit up social networking, prompting the creation of a fan page blaring "Detroit Needs a RoboCop Statue." It gave hundreds of people something to like, to laugh about, or even to scorn.
"Within 24 hours, it went viral," Walley says. "And I don't remember whether I called Jerry or Jerry called me, but a light bulb went off. We were like, 'Whoa, we could really create a big buzz and gain a lot of attention for what we're doing. We might be able to take it to the next level!"
Their instincts hit instant pay dirt: Within three days, their crowdfunding appeal for funding a statue of RoboCop had raised more than $17,000 from more than 900 backers worldwide. Heck, soon Funny or Die released a video of RoboCop lead actor Peter Weller riffing on the project. By the time the funding drive was over six weeks later, more than 2,700 backers had pledged more than $65,000.
At a time when crowdfunding projects was novel, this kind of off-the-charts response drew widespread publicity — favorable and critical. Most people, of course, were dazzled by the money that poured in. But at least a few wondered aloud why, in a resource-strapped city literally on the verge of bankruptcy, it was such a cinch to fund a pricey, irreverent pop culture project.
That said, few of the supporters or doubters present at the inception could have realized what lay ahead. The initial vision of a finished statue in Roosevelt Park, in front of the city's derelict train station, seemed within reach in weeks, perhaps months.
Discussing those heady days — after delays caused by technical problems, intellectual property rights, shifting installation plans, a prolonged illness, and now a pandemic — Walley has every right to sound circumspect about that initial enthusiasm.
"I still get emails asking about the progress every day," Walley says. "I think in all honesty we'd all admit ... we were maybe a bit naïve. But it was exciting. ... It's amazing to think about. It has been a journey."
Back in 2011, however, the team found itself in the middle of a crash course on how to build a giant metal statue, contending with obstacles as yet unconsidered.
Fortunately, the engaged coterie of backers overflowed with in-kind donations, as well as advice on fabrication and potential sites.
For instance, since RoboCop is a piece of valuable intellectual property, the group needed to seek permission from the owner. Luckily, Fred Barton Productions stepped in, volunteering the use of an MGM-approved design for a life-sized statue of the fictional crime fighter. Barton had based his model on original production designs, and with a little computer magic in the form of 3-D scanning and digital scaling, as well as some re-milling at a facility out West, foam forms would be produced for the final casting. It looked as though the monument would be up in no time.
A year after the funding goal was reached, however, organizers were already managing the expectations of impatient backers. An update in March 2012 hinted at the sorts of inquiries they were fielding, cautioning that they were relying on the kindness of experts working pro bono. "We've been in the same boat as you as far as wondering ... when the statue will be here," the update read. "The reality is $60,000 turns out not to be a lot of money for the tasks at hand."
But the promised forms would not arrive in Detroit until September of 2013. The first images of the formwork resembling the final statue were released five months later. Another delay cropped up: To stay on mission and ensure the work was done by the Detroit artist selected for the job, the crew would have to purchase a furnace to melt the bronze. Organizers hinted that the molds were nearing completion in December 2014. But the next update didn't come until 14 months later, in February 2016, and the final major molds weren't completed and poured until October 2016.
By now, some commenters on the updates had become downright grouchy about the lack of a clear timeline. It didn't help that the RoboCrew's announcements were steeped in a breezy, informal tone, and seemed forever on the verge of making a final announcement, only to lapse into many months of silence. The assurances that everything will be done soon began to wear thin. Premature announcements even got as far as assembling guest lists for viewings that were postponed out of existence. Confidence in the project was hardly bolstered by the cascading list of sites discussed for the piece — Roosevelt Park, Tech Town, Belle Isle, and finally the Michigan Science Center.
Add to this dynamic the way news outlets were so eager to share the good news that there were several stories saying that the statue would be up shortly. At least one news item erroneously reported the statue was up already!
What the impatient backers could not have known was that another obstacle lay in the statue's path: The metal fabricator in charge of the job was stricken with cancer, and was in the fight of his life.
On the east side of Detroit, in a small cinderblock building across the road from a major auto parts supplier, work continues on the RoboCop statue. On this chilly winter afternoon, Venus Bronze Works honcho Giorgio Gikas is busy coaching his crew through final assembly at his shop.
Gikas is the very picture of a European metalworker. Stocky and stout, and adorned with tattoos, he wears his hair short on the sides and back, long on top, pulled back into a ponytail. He speaks in an accented, raspy voice in Hemingway sentences that pull no punches. Mention a Detroit art name to him and he'll give you his honest estimation — without the sugar on top. Gikas has a right to his opinion — he is the only outdoor sculpture conservator in Michigan who does museum-quality work.
The sixtysomething has been working on RoboCop for six or seven years, including the time he spent fighting colon cancer. The malignancy left him in bed for a year and a half, in no condition to do anything.
"I'm clean now, got everything taken care of," he says, then looks over at the statue and adds, "and it's still here."
The metal fabricator in charge of the job was stricken with cancer, and was in the fight of his life.
On this day he has just returned from Resurrection Cemetery in Clinton Township, where he's consulting on their Stations of the Cross statuary. When asked how many statues in metro Detroit he's laid his hands on, he smiles and says, "All of them. There's not one I haven't at least touched."
It's no empty boast. The master craftsman has been at work for more than 40 years, and has work streaming into his shop from all over the world. He's four generations deep in metalworking. Gikas jokes that, back in Athens, in his native Greece, his uncle "took a profitable commercial foundry and turned it into an unprofitable art foundry."
He might have stayed there, but he came to the United States in the early 1970s with his cousin to restore a fountain in Cincinnati. Immigration snared them — or, as Gikas phrases it, rescued them — and Giorgio was given the choice of doing time or going into the U.S. Army. He chose the latter, and was fortunate enough to avoid a tour in Vietnam, instead serving stateside.
Afterward, he continued his apprenticeship in his adopted country, including a stint creating patinas at the well-respected Roman Bronze Works in New York in the 1980s, before moving on to the Motor City. By the time the RoboCop statue reached its funding goal in 2011, Gikas had become the most respected of Detroit art smiths.
It was just about when the form for the statue arrived that Gikas was diagnosed with cancer. "It was almost stage 4. I went through chemo, I had a bag. I was in bed for years." The time-consuming, debilitating treatment worked, and he is now in complete remission.
The disease may not have killed him, but it almost ruined him. After getting billed for a quarter of a million dollars by a local health care provider, Gikas had to sell the building he had paid $80,000 for in 1985. (He and his business now stay on as tenants.) In the end, Gikas realized that, as a vet, he was eligible for assistance through the VA, which helped save him from utter financial disaster.
Luckily — for all concerned — Gikas was finally able to finish the job he started. On this wintry day, quite a crew has come in today to help make it all happen. It includes shop assistants Terra Gillis, Sara Myefski, Erin Smart, and Jay Jurma. Also here today are two thirtysomethings who've been assisting with the job for a couple years: Nick Phlegar of Detroit Bikes and Mikel Birtls, a welding engineer.
"When we started out," Phlegar says, "we felt that, in a couple weeks, we'd be done." When he stops laughing, he adds, "It was more than a couple weeks."
The crew has been struggling to get the upper portions ready to be put into final position. Jurma has spent months smoothing out the variations in thickness, using wooden tools like a tongue depressor to find low spots and then "literally sculpting after the rough casting, basically using weld beads and die grinders." It's typical of the old-fashioned methods that prevail in the shop, with a lot of eyeballing and hand work, looking at what needs to be added, filled, or shaved, or what isn't plumb.
Phlegar and Birtls are ready to hoist the torso into place for another try. Gikas is nearby, his head buried in the oversized chest of the statue like a mechanic under the hood of a Packard. The pelvis has been placed on the statue, held together with "tack welds" so it can be examined next to a plumb line. Last summer, when they put the pelvis on the legs, it became obvious the piece leaned back too much. With an object this massive, these fine tweaks can shift hundreds of pounds of weight one way or the other. Just the statue's kneecaps weigh in at 25 pounds apiece.
It goes without saying, the last thing you want is your RoboCop statue to have back problems. The crew corrected the tilt by shaving off a slice of RoboCop's groin and welding in a plate at the correct angle. They offer the sliver of RoboCop's crotch for inspection — it's razor-sharp and as heavy as a pistol.
The final creation is coming together, and it's already impressive. It calls to mind one of the giant suits of armor on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The statue and base together weigh almost two tons. The stainless steel base alone weighs more than a half-ton.
That said, the statue itself doesn't look intimidating or scary. The character's Auto 9 sidearm is nowhere to be seen, and the arms are extended in an open posture. The figure is tall enough to be monumental, but his right arm extends low enough for a posed photo with a hand-holding child. Such gentle touches show wise judgment indeed.
Gikas hastens to add that, since the statue has taken so long to finish, several of the key craftspeople have moved on during its construction. He reels off a list of people who have assisted in the endeavor: James Viste, the CCS craft technician who has since moved to Wisconsin, as well as the many mold makers, apprentices, and other assistants who've passed through the shop — Leslie Cislo, Nick Katsavras, Nathalie LaBruzzy, and Benjamin Warner, to name a few.
A decade is a long time, but in fast-changing Detroit, it's an eon. The changes in downtown Detroit raced ahead so quickly as to outpace the artwork's arrival. Scrappy, pre-bankruptcy Detroit was ripe for satirizing the idea of corporate overlords exercising a heavy hand. But given the rise of exactly that kind of power downtown, does it still have the same ring?
After all, back in February of 2011, Gov. Rick Snyder had just been sworn in to office. The White Stripes had just broken up. The derelict, windowless train station that was the statue's proposed backdrop is now a showy renovation project backed by Ford Motor Company. The once-sleepy blocks of Tech Town, another proposed location, have attracted a clutch of nonprofits that filled its buildings. The big money has swept over much of downtown, and the little pockets of emptiness that might have welcomed a statue aren't as easy to find. In short, Detroit has begun to look more and more like Delta City, a place where corporations ride high and the people are often left hanging in the breeze.
If that hadn't complicated the symbolism of the artwork, consider the protests across the country last year that transformed statuary and police into two of the year's most controversial topics. And that's not to mention the way public artwork is intended as a gathering point — at a time when concerns about coronavirus make grand unveilings and presentations impractical.
The many years that it has taken to complete this project do seem, in the end, to be worth it. It shouldn't be lost on the public that Paffendorf, Walley, and the rest of the RoboCrew could have refunded the money when they knew what they were up against. They also could have thrown together something resembling a statue and let it fall apart. They also could have given up on their talented project leader when he was afflicted with a life-threatening disease. They chose to do none of those things, and instead toughed it out. It also isn't hard to imagine that the artwork, financially, was a losing proposition.
Gikas, in fact, was taken to the brink of bankruptcy. He says the shop's future looks better now, thanks to the restoration work that continues to come in, but it doesn't take much imagination to surmise that the wages paid to artisans have come out of the shop's income, and at this point must amount to tens of thousands of dollars. It's a high price just to keep his word, but he says it's worth it.
The statue, in the coming weeks, will be moved into storage, awaiting its new home — though it will no longer be the Michigan Science Center.
"We are thankful to the Imagination Station team and their partners for including the Michigan Science Center in the RoboCop statue journey," the Michigan Science Center said in a statement. "Working with Imagination Station in 2018, MiSci, a private non-profit museum that receives no city, state or federal operating funding, had planned to install the 11-foot-tall bronze sculpture adjacent to the Center in conjunction with improvements to our grounds. But, given the pandemic's unprecedented pressures, MiSci's resources must now be entirely focused on our core mission of serving Michigan's students and families. The creation of the bronze work, which combines centuries-old metalworking techniques with 21st-century technology, remains an amazing STEM story. As Michigan's STEM hub, MiSci hopes to be able to support Imagination Station in the search for a new and appropriate home for this iconic work."
Walley says the stakeholders that have lined up in support of the statue will help see that it finds a suitable home. And, if everything goes according to plan, the statue will go up at last, forever marking one point in time in the city's history — and that is what monuments do. And the backers, the artisans, and the core of the RoboCrew have every reason to swell with pride.
Describing the group's plans, Gikas explains that the statue will be tipped on its side, carried out the back door with two forklifts, and then loaded onto a trailer. The job sounds harrowing, given the sheer forces of all that bronze and steel, but Gikas is used to monumental size. On this chilly day, the master metalsmith sounds understandably upbeat.
"It's something that will be enjoyed and respected by generations and generations," he says, looking at the work. "The citizens will have a nice piece."
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