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Larger-than-life sculptures are monumental undertaking

Back when Ann Fraughton met her husband, Ed — while they were both students at the University of Utah — one of the things that drew her to him was that he thought big. "He always thought monumentally; he had monuments in his heart."

So, it doesn't surprise her at all that Ed Fraughton has created a niche for himself in the world of monumental art. "I kid him now, telling him I'm sure glad he turned out to be good. Because, you just don't know. There are a lot of people out there who want to be artists, and not all of them make it."

Fraughton started out studying to be a civil engineer, switching to sculpture when he had a chance to study with Avard Fairbanks. But he was always artistic.

Fraughton grew up in Park City, the son of parents who encouraged his early interest in art. His earliest claim to fame was winning the 1949 Milton Bradley Company's "America the Beautiful" Crayon Art Competition with a drawing of the Park City train depot. It was judged the best work done by any fourth-grader in the country.

Even back then, he says, "I was awestruck by sculpture."

Awestruck may be exactly how viewers feel when they see Fraughton's latest project — a multi-ton, 360-foot-long pioneer monument that will cover a city block and then some in Omaha, Neb.

No question that it is the largest thing Fraughton has worked on. "I've not done anything this big before, and neither has anyone else. When it is done, this will be the largest sculptured monument in North America."

The monument, commissioned by the First National Bank in Omaha, is a tribute to all the pioneers who came across the plains, whether on the Mormon Trail, the Oregon Trail or the California Trail.

Phase I, which has been in production for about four years, has just been completed. Finished pieces, which were cast by Metal Arts foundry in Lehi, were shipped to Nebraska early in September. They include a horse-drawn wagon and several pioneer figures, both walking and driving.

Phase II, currently in the clay-model stage, will add another wagon train to the tableau. The finished project will also include a section of wildlife sculpture.

Because of the scope of the monument, the client felt more than one artist should be involved. Fraughton has partnered with Blair Buswell, a sculptor based in Highland and known especially for his Western and sports figures. Texas sculptor Kent Ullberg is doing the wildlife portion of the monument, which includes stampeding buffalo as well as a flock of geese.

"The geese morph into stainless steel as they fly "through" a wall and into an atrium," Fraughton explained. "It gives it a wonderful sense of timelessness."

One reason the project will take so long to complete is that creating bronze sculptures is at best an intricate, time-consuming process. Doing it on this scale adds to the complexity. "We've found a few ways to speed up the process," said Fraughton.

For example, each sculpture starts as a quarter-scale clay model. To enlarge it, Fraughton and his crew have utilized a laser digitizer high-end computer and robotic cutting machine that enlarges and cuts the image out of layers of foam in exact proportions, but five times larger.

The foam armature is then covered with a thin layer of clay to create the model. Using the foam speeds things up considerably, Fraughton notes. But each piece still must undergo an involved process using rubber molds, lost wax casting, bronzing, metal chasing and patina work. The large sculptures are actually cast in pieces and then welded together into the final form.

It's a complicated but exciting process to watch it all come together, said Fraughton, who has done it countless times over his 40-year career. In addition to monumental pieces, he also does smaller commissions and gallery pieces. Among his larger works are the "All Is Well" statue at Brigham Young's Cemetery in Salt Lake City; a larger-than-life figure of Parley P. Pratt, which stands at the gateway to Parley's Canyon; and a monument honoring the Mormon Battalion, which resides in San Diego.

He has never regretted switching from engineering to sculpture. "You step through that door, and you never know," he said. "But so many great opportunities have happened to me because of that."

He also never tires of the challenges of taking something stationary and giving it movement. Sculpture is three-dimensional, but the best sculpture, he feels, is one more dimension. "Most people who have any religious feeling believe that the body has a physical part and a spiritual being. The best sculpture has a likeness, but it also has a spiritual or an emotional component. Great works have that power. That's why arts are the universal language. They communicate in different ways than through words."

So, what message does he hope his latest project will impart? "Reverence. Remembrance. Appreciation for the sacrifices those who settled the West made on our behalf." Monumental ideas captured in bronze, so they can live forever.

And this one, too: "A sense of the potential that man has."