The sculptor who's immortalizing American sports heroes
You've probably seen this artist's work at your favorite stadium. From Michael Jordan to Vince Lombardi, Omri Amrany is capturing them for history.
Michael Jordan in mid-flight. The image is so iconic, it has become ubiquitous with the Air Jordan brand.
When the Chicago Bulls wanted to honor their all-star shooting guard by erecting a statue of him in front of their arena, they held a contest. Sculptors from all over the world applied. Omri Amrany was one of them.
The Illinois resident didn't expect to win. Indeed, he flew to Israel where he grew up, as he does a couple times each year, to spend time with family. Then the phone rang. "At 7:00 in the morning, we got the call from Chicago that we won the competition, and to come back right away and get started," he recalled of that fateful day.
He and his wife – fellow artist Julie Rotblatt-Amrany – hopped on a plane and got right to work. The first time they met Jordan – in the locker room of the Chicago White Sox, another Windy City team for which he played – they spent four hours measuring and photographing one of the world's most famous athletes. They took more than 150 pictures during that initial encounter. "You guys are really professional," Jordan told them. "I really enjoy working with you."
The couple spent eight long months working on the sculpture, which catches Jordan mere moments after liftoff. Called "The Spirit," it's made of 2,000 pounds of bronze and was installed on Oct. 31, 1994. "The engineers calculated they could rest a Volkswagen Beetle on the other leg and it would have held," Julie remembered of that Halloween night 22 years ago.
Fans now flock there to take pictures. In a list compiled in 1998, ESPN proclaimed the sculpture as one of the 10 greatest sports photo opportunities.
Amrany has since built sculptures honoring the likes of Laker greats Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jerry West. He made a memorial statue for the NFL's Pat Tillman and sculptures honoring Hall of Famers from the Detroit Tigers. He has captured in stone the silhouettes of Vince Lombardi, Harry Caray and Wilt Chamberlain. He recently unveiled a statue of legendary basketball coach John Wooden. Last year, he completed work on a gravity-defying sculpture of Shaquille O'Neal for the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Watch the video below where Jimmy Kimmel surprises Shaq with the news about Amrany's statue:
Most recently, Amrany built another statue in front of the Staples Center honoring broadcasting legend Bob Miller. “There are moments in a person’s career that never enter your wildest dreams,” Miller said. “A statue of me unveiled outside Staples Center is something I never thought of in my life." The real-life legends behind some of Amrany other statues – Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wayne Gretzky and more – sent in video messages to honor Miller.
In total, Amrany has built more than 165 sports statues. All of this from a guy who says he's not much of a sports fan. "I am the fan of the world," he told From The Grapevine. "I watch sports for the human achievement. As an artist, as a philosopher, I'm always looking for that."
Amrany and his wife have made countless statues – not just for sports stadiums. They remain incredibly busy, some years producing as many as 45 sculptures during a 12-month period. When asked which one is his favorite, he had this response at the ready: "The one that I didn't do yet."
So how did a kid growing up halfway around the world end up immortalizing American sports heroes? Well, it all started in Italy.
Amrany studied marble carving and the techniques of classical sculpting in the Italian town of Pietrasanta, where the great Michelangelo once lived and worked. "I'm literally coming from the Stone Age in Italy," he said with a laugh. It was there that he met his wife. They returned to Israel where they married, and Amrany put on his first major solo exhibition amid the ancient ruins of the coastal Mediterranean city of Caesarea.
He gained a small measure of fame in his home country of Israel, creating sculptures of dancers and local sports figures. "When a group of sports teams in the United States saw the work, they felt that our work is the best," he said. "The presentation of elimination of gravity and the human spirit in flight is exposed in the best way. That's how we were selected to create projects."
The couple's college-aged son, Itamar, is following in the artistic footsteps of his parents. He's attending school in London to earn a master's degree in architectural science, and is also helping around the studio. Indeed, it was his idea to enter the competition for a Johnny Cash statue to be built on the grounds of Folsom Prison in California.
One of the artists from Amrany's studio, Gary Tillery, was chosen to honor the rock star. "After he won the competition we convinced the city of Folsom to take it from 25 feet to 50 feet tall and develop a park around it," Amrany said. "Itamar, Gary and I and a group of architects from California developed the whole park around it. You'll be able to stop there and barbecue, have a sandwich or sit down and listen to music."
For the past two decades, the Amranys have lived in the Chicago suburbs. Their studio, which they've opened to about a dozen artists who now call it home, is actually situated on the former location of a military base where General Patton once served. "We actually took over the old movie theater where Bob Hope used to perform for the military. It's a very historical place."
They have launched a nonprofit organization called the Julia Foundation; its first project is a sculpture garden. "We are building up our studio to become a museum that people will come to visit from all over the world," Amrany told us. "We're building up momentum so that one day people will come for the music, the art and the scenery."
As for what's next for the couple, they just hope to continue to be productive: "Everything we're doing is very physical," the 63-year-old Amrany said. "When you start to age, it hurts everywhere. But very few people in the world do what we do, so that kind of allows us to have the energy to keep going as long as we can."
Added his wife, Julie: "We will be doing artwork till the day we die," she said. "It's the good thing about doing art is that you don't retire from it. You just always do it."
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