It is hard to imagine Bob Bullock wandering into the Blue Genie Art Industries studio cum fun house in East Austin. The building's exterior is painted like a panel from the Sunday funnies, with Hanna-Barbera-like minarets and tents and a red-hot houri on a magic carpet. Stepping inside feels like walking on to the set of a cartoon; the cavernous space is filled with grinning robots, dancing fire hydrants, and such. But for six months last year, the no-nonsense lieutenant governor, who died in June 1999, would likely have fit right in. That's when the Blue Genie boys were helping to create the six huge bas-relief panels that adorn the facade of Austin's new $80 million Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, set to open on April 21. The parade floats and art cars that usually pay Blue Genie's bills were rolled aside last March when sculptor Mike O'Brien presented owners Kevin Collins, Rory Skagen, and Dana Younger (and the six or so stray artists they feed each day) with their first grown-up job. Their marching orders came from the State Preservation Board and a museum advisory committee selected by then-governor George W. Bush, then-lieutenant governor Bullock, and House Speaker Pete Laney. The 46-year-old O'Brien would create six 11- by 16-foot concrete panels that would serve as the exterior statement of the museum's interior mission: to tell the story of Texas.
The panels—which were budgeted at $250,000—would incorporate the themes the museum had come up with: "Encounters on Land," "Building the Lone Star Identity," and "Creating Opportunity." But it was up to O'Brien, the exhibit sculptor for Texas Parks and Wildlife, to fill in the details. To make sure that the timeless statements he intended to produce were grounded in their original moments, he pored over such authoritative sources as the six-volume Handbook of Texas, T. R. Fehrenbach's Lone Star , and old WPA photos.
The panels begin with a Native American leading a conquistador through the Palo Duro Canyon. Next, O'Brien chose a forward-looking take on the Alamo. "We decided not to fight the battle again," he says. "We wanted that incredibly vulnerable moment right after the battle when things could have gone in any direction." And on through the state's icons and achievements: cattle, cowboys, and trains; cotton and immigrants; oil; and space exploration.
After the advisory committee approved O'Brien's sketches, he sculpted two- by three-foot clay miniatures, or maquettes, and took them to Blue Genie. To blow up the scale, the boys made three-dimensional drawings of the maquettes, like topographical maps, which they enlarged to eleven by sixteen. For each bas-relief, the topographical layers were translated into pieces of Styrofoam that were then built up on a giant plywood panel and covered with clay so the team could create the full-sized image. They spent hours working the clay to get every detail correct, from the buttons on the Mexican soldier's coat to the little bluestem grass the cattle run through.
When they had finished sculpting, they made the molds by spraying a quarter-inch-thick veil of rubber onto the clay. After it dried, the finished molds were peeled from the clay and shipped to GFRC Cladding Systems in Garland, where they were filled with glass fiber-reinforced concrete. Once it had set, the rubber molds were removed and the panels—which the Preservation Board wanted to blend in with the other statuary in the Capitol Complex—were stained a bronzelike dark brown.
For any undertaking of this magnitude to be successful, the artists have to enjoy going to work, and the Blue Genie boys—who range in age from 22 to 38—are constitutionally incapable of a bad time. Look closely at the panels and you'll see where they had their fun. There is a horny toad near the conquistador's horse that received as much attention as the rifles and sabers on the ground in front of the Alamo chapel. An armadillo crawls out of a crater on the moon, and over the moonscape horizon, the landmass visible on the rising Earth's surface is shaped like Texas.
"We've done a lot of cartoony, goofy stuff," says Blue Genie's Dana Younger, "and this is none of that. When we take our grandkids around the museum, we will be able to say, 'You know, this is the first thing like this we ever did.'"