Michael Dunbar still has a problem with his early school years: “When you know what you’re going to do and you have to listen to teachers and figure out ‘How does this apply to me?’, it makes school a real challenge.” Young Michael knew what he wanted to do for a living at a very early age — he wanted to be an artist. And that’s exactly what he is today.
Born in Santa Paula, Calif., in 1947, Dunbar came to Springfield when he was 4 or 5, graduated from Springfield High School in 1965, and attended Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Illinois State University at Normal and the Chicago Academy of Fine Art. He has worked all over the state of Illinois but returned permanently to the capital city in 1977.
“I knew as a kid I wanted to be an artist. My challenge was discovering what kind of art I could excel in. I tried commercial art and didn’t like it; tried cartooning and didn’t like it. I decided to complete my college education and figure it out then. I had always been sculpting things but never realizing I could make a career out of it. When I was a junior at ISU, I saw my first bronze pour [pouring of molten bronze into a cast].”
Dunbar was hooked: “When I was at ISU, I worked in the foundry and ran all the pours to the point where we would do all the castings. I just loved it.”
As with many area artists, the public first became acquainted with his work downtown. “I showed my first work at the Old Capitol Art Fair and then moved on to other things,” Dunbar recalls. He has participated in many local shows over the years, and along the way, earned a degree in arts management from UIS, a career decision that led to regular paychecks. He resurrected the art gallery at the Illinois State Fair and directed the Galesburg Arts Council along the way. He co-founded Chicago’s Pier Walk, the biggest U.S. exhibition of large sculpture, which draws artists from all over the world.
When he returned to Springfield in the ’70s, he rented a studio from Roscoe Niccolls on Niccolls Road. Because money was short and he didn’t have the equipment needed to work with bronze, he decided to sculpt in steel. Dunbar purchased welding equipment and taught himself how to weld. “I didn’t have a shop to do the work for me,” he says. “I knew I had to control my art, and the way to do it was to do it myself.”
Dunbar’s first piece of large sculpture, crafted from steel, was constructed there. “Highway 66 Goodbye”was created the year the Mother Road was replaced by Interstate 55. “It was a pivotal piece — the first sculpture than was larger than myself and a way to say goodbye to my childhood. Steel was a way to make sculpture when I was learning how to be a sculptor,” he says. “The whole trick to this business is to learn what you have to do so you can do what you want to do.
“There are so many things they don’t teach you in art school. Finding your own voice is the most important thing. They don’t talk about the power of your personal vision and the importance of weathering the early going. It’s also important to take your work to the people, because they will not come to you in the early days. I have drawers of rejection letters to prove it.”
Dunbar’s first large bronze sculpture was produced for Eastern Illinois University in 1982.
Each of his creations is first sketched, then modeled in wax. Drawings made from these models are used to produce a maquette, French for “small model.” Each component of the maquette is machined to high precision and assembled. The large sculptures, based on the small renditions, are fabricated of bronze plate and attached to a framework of welded stainless steel. The foundry assembles the piece at the site of the sculpture’s new home.
Some artists paint large paintings and sometimes produce smaller works for diversion. Dunbar is committed solely to large bronze. Even so, the maquettes crafted in preparation for the one-off large piece are produced in “single-figure editions” for sale.
UIS professor emeritus Larry Shiner attributes an “industrial aesthetic” to Dunbar’s creations, evident in “the economy and precision of fine machinery. Shiner continues: “The more I study Dunbar’s best pieces, the simpler and more economical they seem without ever becoming boring; each curve, each plate, each notch — and its often matching block — seems to be there for a reason.”
In Springfield, Dunbar’s creations may be appreciated at Lincoln Land Community College and the Sangamo Club. “There are no examples of the new level of ‘superbronzes,’ which I’ve been doing since 1995,” Dunbar says. “There are smaller maquettes in local homes.”
“Three Rivers,” a 24-foot tall sculpture, is being fabricated for the Great Rivers Research Center near Alton, close to the confluence of the Mississippi, Illinois, and Missouri rivers. A maquette is on display at the UIS gallery, and Dunbar says that he expects that the work will be completed “in the next year or so.”
Known internationally, Dunbar is proof that an artist doesn’t have to live in Chicago or New York City to be successful there, nor does he have to rely on his hometown for success.
“Enjoy Springfield for what it is,” Dunbar says. “It’s a beautiful town, and it’s so easy to live here.”
A reception for Michael Dunbar in celebration of his exhibition Machinist Studies will be held at the UIS Visual Arts Gallery from 5-6:30 p.m. Friday, April 1. An artist’s lecture, slide show, and talk about Dunbar’s career and art will be presented at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 7, in room C/D of the UIS Public Affairs Center. The events are free and open to the public.