Deb Zeller: Capturing the Legacy of Family and Agribusiness Through Bronze
In a courtyard at Land O’Lakes Corporate headquarters in Arden Hills, MN, Deb Zeller’s bronze sculpture of a grandfather stands an impressive 6 feet high but it's the small details that draw in viewers: the way the 3-foot granddaughter grasps his little finger, the details of her boots.
The piece, Rooted in Tomorrow was unveiled in August 2021, as the agribusiness celebrates its centennial.
“The little girl’s Wellie boots are a favorite detail of a lot of people,” says Zeller, an internationally acclaimed sculptor whose father and grandfather were farmers. Her work is on display in California, Iowa, and Canada.
The sculpture carries a deeply personal connection, and, like much of her work, draws directly from life, which gives her sculptures an expressive quality that moves viewers.
“I work from live models,” Zeller says. “That wasn’t always the case. In my early sculpting years, I had proportion issues and they weren’t as expressive as they are now. A friend of mine recommended that I join a life-drawing group. That was over 15 years ago and I still do life drawing every week.”
Not only that, but she has been running Minnesota Figure Study Collaborative for more than seven years.
“For the Land O’Lakes project, I scanned every single picture I could find of my father and printed them out,” she says. “My goal was to get the best possible likeness in his face. My husband and one of our employees at the winery were the models for the grandfather’s body. The little girl is a compilation of two of my nieces, one too old and one too young, and a neighborhood girl who was just the right age. I take a lot of reference photos and reference measurements. Measure, measure, measure…when the measurements are correct, the figures are believable.”
Zeller of Hopkins, MN, discovered her love of art as a young girl.
“I grew up on a farm and we didn’t have a lot of money,” Zeller recalls. “My parents gave me a set of oil paints for my 13th birthday. I will never forget it.”
She has expanded beyond oil painting: photography, watercolor, YUPO (synthetic paper), acrylic, and encaustics. She came to work in bronze in 1999.
“I had an artist friend who kept telling me to take a bronze sculpting class at the Minnetonka Center for the Arts,” Zeller says. “I was too busy with my corporate job in global supply chain management to be able to dedicate one night a week for a class, so it didn’t happen for many years.”
Finally, in 1999, when Zeller’s friend moved to Texas and Zeller went to visit her friend insisted that their time together be spent sculpting in bronze.
“So, I finally took a class,” Zeller says. “And, she was right-- I loved it! I couldn’t believe I had put off taking the class for so many years. I have been sculpting ever since. Each project expands my experience and I am constantly learning.”
What is it about bronze for Zeller?
“I love the durability of bronze,” she says. “ When I was in college, I studied art history abroad one summer. I got to see the Greek Chariot Driver sculpture that was 3000 years old and in perfect condition. Needless to say, I was incredibly impressed.”
Zeller’s husband is a winemaker and she likes to tease him that his art lasts for 3 seconds on the tongue while my bronze will last for 3000 years.
“From 3 seconds to 3000 years, we have it covered: ‘Art and Wine Entwine.’” Zeller quips.
She still draws regularly.
“I draw and paint the figure every week,” she says. We have quick poses, 2 minute, 5 minute, 15 minute and 22 minute poses,” she says referring to the figure drawing group she leads. “I typically capture the quick poses in watercolor and water soluble crayon. For the long poses of 3 hours with breaks, I typically break out my oil paints. I also run a portrait group which is just going to start up again after COVID, that meets on Saturdays for 3 hours with a live portrait model. A lot of practice observing the human form and face makes a huge difference.”
Her piece, OH, was created from a live model, typical of her development work.
“It was created from a live model, who unbelievably held this position for 3 hours with breaks, of course,” she says. “It is called OH because she forms an O shape and people typically say ‘Oh’ when they learn the model held that position. It was in the Minneapolis Institute of Art Foot in the Door program last year. People who love yoga purchase castings of her.”
The Agora Gallery, NYC, has described her work: “Though arrested in bronze, the human figures in her work are anything but static - playing with balance and agility of the female figure. Lithe as dancers, her nudes seem characters from mythology, players in the stories of goddesses and nymphs and mortal beauties.”
Among her public commissions are a police memorial for the City of Hutchinson and a bronze corpus on a 15-foot cross for St. Bernards Church in Cologne, Minn.
Normally, it takes a year for Zeller to create a life size bronze. With the Land O’Lakes commission, she had 10 months.
“They knew that they wanted a grandfather farmer walking hand in hand with a grandchild, “ she said.” For me, it was absolutely perfect, because I grew up on a farm and my Dad was a dairy farmer. I was always Daddy’s little girl by his side on the farm growing up, so I asked Land O’Lakes if the grandchild could be a girl. I got the big thumbs up and I got permission to sculpt my deceased father as the grandpa farmer.”
Upon landing the project, she immediately contacted her foundry and my armature maker to let them know I had a big project coming and the approximate time I would need their services.
“I started with a few basic sketches, the two figures walking together, the little girl grasping the grandpa’s little finger, the little girl’s Wellie boots, crooked part and braids,” she says. “This was during the pandemic shut down, so I sent scans and progress photos to Land O’Lakes. They were tremendous and always provided feedback within 24 hours. The only feedback for modification from the drawings was to make sure the grandpa looked like a grandpa, not the Dad.”
Next she made a clay maquette to make sure she understood her client’s wishes. The little girl was 12 inches tall and the grandpa was 24 inches tall.
“In the first round, I made the grandpa too old…he had to be strong enough to throw hay bales when he was 9,” Zeller said. “It was a fun process going back and forth, all electronically, until I had the maquette perfected to their desires. Once approved, I took my clay maquette to the foundry, Casting Creations in Howard Lake, Minn. and had it cast in bronze. I sent a wax version, that I had simplified to remove all detail, to my armature maker, Artistic Replication Technology, in Oklahoma.”
Zeller said she spent the next two months creating the sculpture in clay on two CNC machined high density polystyrene and pipe armatures.
“The entire time, I sent progress photos to Land O’Lakes,” Zeller says. “ When I had it complete in the clay, Land O’Lakes sent a team to my studio to check it out. The two figures were connected (little girl grasping grandpa’s little finger) hours before they arrived, since clay has no self-supportive strength and it was fragile. After our approval meeting, the two figures were separated again so they could be transported to the foundry.”
The following day, the foundry came to Zeller’s studio to transport the figures.
“We were all so focused on getting the project done on time and allowing for unexpected surprises, like a portion of the casting having porosity or some other issue, that we had the sculpture ready for patina a month ahead of time,” Zeller says. “I always go to the foundry to do the patina to make sure it meets my expectations. On one this size, I had their staff help me out.”
The two figures have 3/4 inch SST rods that go up into their legs holding them 8 inches above a 1/2 inch thick SST base plate. This plate was bolted to the concrete foundation on site at Land O’Lakes and 8 inches of crushed granite was filled below the figures’ boots.
“It looks like they are just walking on gravel, but they are very securely anchored,” Zeller said.
A community home
Zeller considers her studio a collaborative home for artists.
“Artists who participate at the studio get a little gallery on my website showcasing work they have created in the studio,” she said. “It is so rewarding to have a collaborative, supportive group that encourages and helps each other. Not only do we have weekly sessions in my studio, there is a Gallery that exhibits artwork. Exhibitions are by invitation and typically feature artists who collaborate in the studio along with other artists who are recognized in the community.”
A new exhibition was recently hung in the Gallery featuring the artists of the Lake Minnetonka Studio Tour group. The artist studios open October 23 and 24, with 5 guest artists in the working side of Zeller’s studio. The bronze maquette for the Land O’Lakes sculpture is included in the exhibition.
Also in this Issue:
- History Cast in Copper
- Toledo Museum of Art Adds Two Monumental Sculptures
- Deb Zeller: Capturing the Legacy of Family and Agribusiness Through Bronze
- Mr. Rogers Sculpture Unveiled at Rollins College
- George and Gerard Tsutakawa: A Family Legacy Shaping the Seattle Identity