Gifts from Apollo: The Bronze Work of Max DeMoss | KCET
Gifts from Apollo: The Bronze Work of Max DeMoss
It all started when a Greek immigrant fell for a Louisiana gal. They married, and had a son, Max S. DeMoss, Jr. Alas, forever wasn't meant to be. Besides the cultural divide, Max, Sr., was 65 when his son was born. His wife was 27. The marriage dissolved when little Max was 3.
But Max's father, a Paris-trained chef, became a good weekend father, often taking his young son to see the art he loved -- Greek art. Hand in hand, they walked the halls of museums and galleries; Max Sr. explaining in loving detail the Greek Mythology behind the paintings and the statues they admired.
As part of early childhood training, the father also took his son to Greek Orthodox churches. While the priest sermonized in Greek, his father told of the religious stories depicted in the huge stained-glass windows. He took his son deeper into the meaning of the Stations of the Cross and other religious icons in the church.
Young Max, eager to please his father, put his hands to clay and to Playdough, recreating everyday objects and the art he saw in museums -- nimble fingers pressing Playdough into forms of horses, people, houses, even busts of his father. Young Max wanted to show his father that he too was an artist. His father died when he was 22, but in some ways, Max is still showing his father he's an artist.
Like his Greek forebears, Max DeMoss Jr., now himself 65 years old, is an artist who specializes in bronze. He is a sculptor who forges bronze into classic works of art. Some of them small and intricate, some huge and monolithic.
Each day he exits the side door of his house to walk the few steps into his two-story studio/gallery not knowing what will happen. Only that he will remain open to what might come. Open to what his heart, his mind, and his muses offer him. When the work is going good, "It's like timelessness," he says. "Time disappears for me and I get this sense of flying, of weightlessness, a kind of out-of-body experience." He flies wherever his art takes him.
Wherever he goes, his two German shorthaired pointers, Pablo and Petie, want to follow. He's had German shorthairs for more than 30 years, a breed he's sympatico with. Max wears a black T-shirt and jeans, and is lean and fit for his age. He welcomes you with a smile and shakes your hand with inherited old-world charm.
Max has been working in bronze for some 50 years. He's turned his 10-acre Hemet orange grove, where he lives with his wife, Carolyn, into an art-making compound, almost industrial in scope. He can create huge bronzes pieces, as large as 12-feet in diameter in his home foundry. Cranes and forklifts help with the heavy lifting. There is much heavy lifting. Many of his larger bronze works are set on granite pedestals weighing tons.
Max doesn't want to be confined to his father's Greek influences, but the influences are apparent. He has a piece in his home gallery bought by a Tampa collector called The Wave. The piece is like frozen movement, the swirl and flow of the wave captured in bronze. Silver and gold plating were layered into the bronze and polished to high shine, so the wave looks like it's picking up highlights from the sun. The wave has power and presence, evoking the god Poseidon. Many of his bronze platters look to be gifts from Apollo, intense like the sun, surrounded by fiery coronas, like bronze art forged by Hephaestus, Greek god of fire and smithing.
Smaller dioramas, like the one Max did of the New Bedford Rape Case of 1983, require great handiwork and patience, each finger of each character has to be vented so the heat from the firing doesn't explode the digits. Max based the diorama on news coverage of the famous case where a young New Bedford woman was raped on a pool table in Dan's Bar by four men while other patrons watched and did nothing. The incident was portrayed in a 1988-movie called "The Accused."
"I remember the day the verdict came in. I came out to the studio and started working on a piece that was a re-enactment of the trial," he said. He entered the piece in a juried show at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, and he won Best in Show. It had all the drama of a Greek Tragedy. Despite being declared the winner, the museum asked him not to bring the sculpture to the show. It was too violent, the judges contended. "They sent me the prize money, but I was so angry I didn't go to the opening," he says.
Even Max is a little mystified by how he arrived at where he is. As a Paramount High School student he struggled. Often in trouble, he would avoid the principal's office by hanging out in art class. He liked the teacher, Ruben Macias.
The teacher must have seen potential in Max, because he helped channel Max's untamed spirit into sculpture. He gave Max books containing formulas for investments for the lost-wax process of casting bronze. Max started working at home, using his mother's oven to make sculptures, but his mother's oven was too small, too low-temp to get the right effects.
He started casting bronze in art class, using the metal shop, even though he wasn't a metal shop student, to practice his craft. He graduated from high school, but as often happens, life took precedence. He met Carolyn, married, had three children, and took a job working as an orderly at Kaiser Hospital. Still, he worked in bronze when he could.
There was a time he thought he would be a doctor. He studied pre-med but an academic counselor convinced Max he should pursue what he loved. Maxed loved art. He never looked back.
He graduated with a Master of Fine Arts degree in conceptual art from Claremont Graduate School. For 33 years he taught sculpture at Mt. San Jacinto Community College. He also taught at University of California, Riverside, and La Sierra College.
Max paints as well as sculpts and there's no counting how many works of art he's produced over the years. He takes a guess on his bronze the number of bronze platters and says he and his two long-time assistants have made well over 300 platters -- the most popular of his works. Every one of them is different, one of a kind. His is not an assembly-line operation. "To this day, I don't know exactly what it's going to look like when it's done. I have to wait for that aha moment, and that's intriguing for me. It's gratifying to see the finish," he says.
Much of his work is bought by private collectors, corporations, museums and municipalities. The bigger pieces often become public art. Some of his bigger pieces sell for as much $75,000. He also does work on commission, often for Catholic Churches. The Catholic Church in Rancho Santa Fe recently hired him to create bronze renditions of Stations of the Cross, the 12-part recreation of the events that led to the crucification, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. "I'm not a Catholic, but that hasn't been an issue, or at least it's never been expressed to me. I have a different point of view than somebody that grew up in the Church and they seem to appreciate that," he says.
He is surprised by how emotional the process can be. As he works on a vignette for the Stations of the Cross, he immerses himself in the life and times of the people in the scene. His primary mode of expression is gesture. To get the right gesture, he finds himself feeling what the people must have been feeling. He becomes an empath. Working in his studio, on his own, he searches for those feelings. "I'm physically at each station," he says. He can't help but connect and he finds himself filled with emotion as he tries to get Simon's hands just right as he carries Jesus's cross. "I'm sure he (Simon) didn't want to be there, he wanted simply go on with his own life. But a part of Simon's humanity compelled him to share the suffering," Max says.
The work is not only emotionally taxing, but also physically demanding. After a disastrous vacation in Italy where his back went completely out, and he had to crawl to use the restroom, he vowed to do take better care of his body. His wife has been working out at the local gym for 25 years, so Max decided to follow her example. He launched an exercise program of his own, lost 30 pounds, and is able to keep his back episodes to a minimum.
A good back is critical to his art. Working in bronze is very physical, so he must remain fit if his work is to continue. He very much wants it to continue, even though the current economy makes it tough on artists. As the economy clamps down, buyers are less willing to make big expenditures. And the costs of materials for Max's art keep going up. Twenty years ago, bronze was 70-cents a pound. Now it's $4 a pound. The bronze Max uses is 90 percent copper and the Chinese's growing appetite for copper drives up the price.
No, much of it is hard work -- not all fun and games, but he derives much satisfaction. "I love the moment of completion," Max says.