A stroll through sculptor Rebecca Childers Caleel’s Oak brook home is a gallery walk in and of itself. To the left, the airy den is peopled with statues, reclining female nudes, a whimsical pottery piece with bright red lips, and an array of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas maquettes in various poses.
To the right, the living room is anchored by two huge bronze sculpture pots from Caleel’s “Faces in the Forest” series, one she’s dubbed Sassy-fras, the other Maude. And smack in the middle? A bronze tiger woman, soaring seven-feet upward from atop a four-foot plinth—sort of an apex of meaning for all that Caleel was, is and hopes to be.
“Tiger woman! Yes, she’s like: “I am woman, hear me roar!” Caleel laughs. “Which really does say it all—nurturer, caregiver, partner, adventurer. All of those things.”
It’s no surprise that Caleel speaks in multiples. The 30-year Oak Brook resident wears many hats. She serves philanthropically for the Oak brook Chapter, Infant Welfare Society of Chicago and is a founding member of the Women’s Board of the Adler Planetarium among other organizations. She raised her children here, while simultaneously growing as an artist working in several mediums—sculpture, ceramic arts, jewelry, and most recently? Textile and fashion accessories design.
Caleel still speaks in the soft accent that belies her Southern roots. Born in Port St. Joe, Florida where she spent her youth, Caleel earned degrees in design and home economics at Florida State University before taking a job as Fashion Coordinator and Display Director for Lord & Taylor in Atlanta. On the job one day, she was recruited to be in a television commercial, catching the attention of an advertising professional.
“She talked me in to moving to Chicago for a modeling career,” Caleel recalls. Working for several agencies, Caleel was a modeling success. “But when I was three months pregnant with one of my boys and a magazine was trying to get me to do a cover shoot, my husband finally said, “Enough is enough.” Caleel laughs. “So I decided to get back to making art.”
Though she hadn’t studied sculpture before, Caleel was drawn to it.
“As a child, I spent so much of my time on the Florida beaches exploring with my brother,” she says. “I used to find these beautiful pieces of driftwood that I would carve into masks.”
While Caleel gathered driftwood and shells, her brother Wayne (now an archeologist, author, and preminent scholar on Spanish Colonial Florida) dug up arrowheads, animal bones, and Indian artifacts. Together, the two would pore over every book they could find on ancient civilizations. “And their artwork!” Caleel recalls.
“I loved the figures and glyphs the Olmec, Maya, and Aztec cultures drew representing periods of time—months, days, and years. I was also fascinated by the art of the Iroquois False Face Society. And my brother was brilliant—he was constantly showing me some new discovery.”
Enrolled in sculpture classes at the Art Institute of Chicago, Caleel found her way to Mustafa Naguib, former National Sculptor of Egypt, who was teaching forensic sculpture in the Loop.
“On the very first day, he had me build a life-sized freestanding steel armature,” says Caleel. “Then, he had me sculpt the entire skeleton over the armature, and over that all of the muscles, and only then, the skin. I’d make mistakes and have to take it down and start over again. It was exhausting, intense, but so important. You really must minutely understand the structure and measurements of the human body and absorb all that to create meaningful sculpture—both realistic and abstract.”
Three years spent with Naguib, plus more time studying with forensic sculptor Betty Gatiliff in France and Italy led to more and more commissions to create sculptures for public and private spaces. Among them, Caleel has done many of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, a mother-infant-child statue for the Angel Harvey Infant Welfare Society of Chicago, and a series of Egyptian-themed bronze sculpture pots and bas-reliefs for Mary Zimmerman’s production of Akhnaten, by Philip Glass, at the Chicago Opera Theatre.
Caleel is perhaps best known for her larger-than-life statues of Lincoln.
“I really didn’t set out to become an expert on Abraham Lincoln sculpture, but things just evolved that way,” says Caleel. “When I set out to sculpt something, I really have to absorb and understand the subject intimately, so with Lincoln, I read everything I could find, talked to Lincoln scholars, experts at the Smithsonian Institute, and the curator of the Ford’s Theatre.”
Caleel also studied historical photographs of Lincoln, and, used a life mask of Lincoln’s face, and hands that were made by sculptor Leonard Wells Volk in 1860, and a second life mask that was made two months before Lincoln’s death by sculptor Clark Mills.
“The necessity of such intimate knowledge of the person you are modeling makes sense, when you consider that making a heroic statue is a costly, year-long process,” Caleel explains. “I start by building frames and rollers that can accommodate 500 to 1,000 pounds of clay. Then I build the armature that supports the figure I sculpt. All of this can take about about eight months on its own.”
The five-step casting process takes another eight months. And the cost of producing the large pieces can be upwards of $70,000.
Caleel’s next commissions are for a series of busts exploring “The Many Moods of Lincoln.” But Caleel also continues with art work based on her childhood fascination with the art of ancient civilizations. Most recently, that’s figured in the bronze amulets she creates for her jewelry, and, even a chic fabric-and-leather diaper bag. Going to market soon, the bags are made from textiles she designed. But what sets them apart are the little bronze boy and girl baby figurines cast from her depictions of Alux (pronounced ah’loosh), the little fairies of Mayan myth. “I just loved the whole idea of Alux,” says Caleel.
“Mayan tradition holds that they’re the guardians of forests and streams and communicate with little children, bringing joy and loving protection. I decided to make both a little boy and little girl representation of them. I cast them in bronze and put them on a necklace. Everywhere, I mean everywhere, I went, people were stopping me wanting to buy that necklace off my neck!” she laughs, which launched the project. “And after that, who knows? Every time I’m in the middle of one fascinating project, I’ll get the idea for the next one. We’ll just have to see where that leads.”