GIRARD'S DAVID: A SMALL MIRACLE IN TERRA COTTA

 Master of Mud (aka artist) and former Center for Creative Studies (CCS), Detroit,  professor of art, Bill (William J.) Girard Jr., passed away in 2011. The website created to honor him is found at https://girardsvasari.com/

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If  you wonder where this is going, think about one of the most famous pieces of sculpture in the western world: Michelangelo's sculpture, David. Actually, that's misleading. That's just where it starts. Maybe.

Maybe it starts with Genesis 2:7. “Then the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life…” 

Loosely translated, this passage is a recipe for terra cotta: Take clay and make something so amazing that it takes on a life of its own. It's a tremendous challenge.

David (preparing to face Goliath) Terra Cotta: 10" x 6.5" x 5.5" Artist: Bill Girard (William J. Girard, Jr.)  Royal Oak, MI 1940 - 2011


Point is, everyone knows about that David. So if you're a certain type of artist

  • Ambitious
  • Interested in tackling one of the more popular themes in art and biblical history 
  • Really into sexy, famous men 
  • Fascinated by anatomy and the challenge of capturing 3-D, dynamic plasticity and making it profound
  • Who has a patron with one or more of the preceding interests
  • Ect.
 well, maybe you tackle a DAVID of your own. 

To be fair, "David and Goliath" is a hugely popular theme in art history. And there are a bunch of other noteworthy Davids from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Donatello's sinuous, adolescent nude, for example. Bernini's ripped version... 

Fact: I have no idea why the artist, William Jefferson Girard, Jr., (aka Bill) actually decided to create a DAVID of his own. The forgoing is simple surmise. 

Fact: Girard's "primary" patron at the time DAVID was created, and its owner until his own death, was one Allen Abramson. In later years, Abramson displayed Girard's diminutive DAVID in his foyer, right in front of  Girard's massive and highly erotically charged, SNAKE CHARMER. To it's right sat a framed image of the Dali Lama - the 14th, I believe. See image at top of post. 

David. Artist: G. Bernini. Circa 1623.   David. Bronze. Artist: Donatello. Florence, Italy 

Now, look again.

Girard’s DAVID is on his knees, rock in hand, grabbing his sling. His lyre is slung over his back. His cloak - a fur - is askew, some of it rests beneath him. It is exactly at this moment that he seems to see the massive, majestic and deadly Goliath, perhaps for the first time. His brows register shock. His jaw drops. Oh God! 

DAVID (Detail). By William Jefferson (Bill) Girard, Jr. Terra Cotta. 1940 - 2011. Royal Oak, MI. Photo credit: Glenn S. Michaels 2021

Artists measure their work against those of predecessors and contemporaries. Verrocchio’s David is a spindly youth. Michelangelo’s titanic David is confident, a master of fate. Bernini’s pivoting David is bold and grimly determined.

Girard’s small, shapely, shepherd boy is none of these – though closest in spirit to Bernini, I think. His David is a young man with a plan – not a hardened warrior - facing a reality far grimmer than he had imagined.

For God's sake, he's about to go into battle, and he's still carrying his lyre. Girard’s DAVID is the epitome of a long shot. 

DAVID. By William Jefferson (Bill) Girard, Jr. Terra Cotta. 1940 - 2011. Royal Oak, MI. Photo credit: Glenn S. Michaels 2021
This diminutive terra cotta bozetto (sketch), by my lights, is an accomplishment much greater than its dimensions. It strides the path of major classic artists. It is imaginative, but realistic. It breathes vivacity. It contains much of the energy of the masterworks on which it is modeled, but stakes out a vision that’s compelling and fresh. 

But the inherently static quality is upended by the torso's slight twist, accentuated by the out- and down-thrust hand searching for the sling. And in the other hand, forearm taut to the body, a counterpoise that confirms the shift of physical energy, is the deadly missile that will launch David into... everything that follows.

DAVID. By William Jefferson (Bill) Girard, Jr. Terra Cotta. 1940 - 2011. Royal Oak, MI Photo credit: Glenn S. Michaels 2021

It is created by a young, almost wholly self-educated artist in an art historical period essentially inimical to figurative art in the spirit of the Renaissance, making it a "new renaissance" piece. 

Abramson loved DAVID. But then, he loved everything Girard made. He  hoarded Girards the way other art collectors (reportedly) hoard their masterpieces. While I don’t have an accurate count of the number of Girards in his possession when he passed, there were certainly several hundred. And multiple masterpieces. But there wasn’t another terra cotta like DAVID.

Girard clearly felt that particular piece was special. In the year before he died of cancer, Girard asked Abramson if he could borrow DAVID back, to have near him in his last days.

Despite years of mutual antagonism that had led to a complete break between the two men, Abramson graciously returned DAVID to it's maker.

That's where I first noticed it, I believe. A few months before Girard died, my wife and I travelled to Michigan to visit with him while he was still able to enjoy company.

It was there, at his house, that I first really "saw" the piece. It excited me. A lot. I begged permission to take photos, for reference, and Bill obliged. The photos weren’t good. Neither my equipment nor my photography skills were up to the challenge. 

According to Chris Girard, the artist's son, Bill had the terra cotta DAVID on his bedside table when he died.  Clearly, it was deeply meaningful to him. 

Abramson was anxious to have DAVID back once Bill died. But Chris... well, he felt it was part of his father's legacy. He refused to return it. And he may not have been aware that it had come from Allen; however, I doubt it. 

Mind you, Allen Abramson had praised Chris to the skies, to me, for his extraordinary commitment to caring for his father as he died. He had allowed Chris to come into his own home and video his massive collection of Girard art for a documentary that Chris had in mind.

But the longer Chris delayed returning the loaned terra cotta to Allen, the more frustrated Allen became. He contacted me, frequently, to discuss the matter. He urged me to convince Chris to return DAVID. 

And I did. I understood Chris’s attachment to his father’s masterpiece. But it belonged to someone else. I sent Chris several emails that encouraged a peaceful and appropriate resolution to the issue

Allen became volcanic; fuming, sputtering and periodically spewing molten ejecta. All the kind words he had had for Chris following his father’s death were forgotten. It was uncomfortable to hear. 

Allen threatened legal action against Chris. 

Eventually, Chris did return the DAVID to Abramson. 

Like so many creatives, he had no money to speak of. Defending himself in a lawsuit wasn’t a viable solution. His grandmother, with whom he had lived since he was six, was in her late 80s and required loving support. Chris already had his his hands full.

It was the right choice. But a little late in coming. Allen would never forgive Chris. And Chris would never get the chance to make his documentary.



Abramson, who was several years older than Bill Girard, passed on a few years later. 

Chris Girard only survived Allen by several years. His death was shocking and certainly premature. He had been desperate to cement his father’s artistic legacy with a video and website. Where are the video recordings he created at Allen’s?

The Abramson estate - including that massive collection of  Girard's work - was dispersed, per his wishes. Given my interest in documenting Girard's legacy, and in obtaining a particular piece,  I reached out to the executors and we became friendly. My longstanding personal relationship with Allen didn't hurt. 

Information was exchanged. A relationship developed around a shared interest in the legacy of the patron and his artist. 

I was able to acquire the nearly miniature “Moon Carrier,” a  piece I had wanted to buy from Allen for years. He wouldn't sell it. It, too, is a special piece of art.

A personal friend of Allen's purchased a large portion of his Girard collection. Among the many items in that portion was DAVID. 

Maybe two or three years after that, DAVID arrived at my house, utterly unexpected. A gift! Shocking. Nearly frightening. Impossibly moving. 

It was if Bill Girard himself had pulled strings from wherever he resides to achieve a result that would be meaningful to me in a way few can fully imagine. 

So you see, Girard's DAVID truly is a small miracle in terra cotta. At least to me.

For the sake of comparison, check out the catalog, Earth and Fire. Italian Terracotta Sculpture from Donatello to Canova. 2001 Edited by Bruce Boucher.


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By Glenn Scott Michaels.

All rights reserved. Copyright 2021.
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Master of Mud (aka artist) and former Center for Creative Studies (CCS), Detroit,  professor of art, Bill (William J.) Girard Jr., passed away in 2011. The website created to honor him is found at https://girardsvasari.com/



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