Back in 2001, during Bill Holmes’ first pottery class, every other student in the room was making bowls. Holmes, however, was more ambitious. He’d brought in a photograph of a close friend and was determined to shape a likeness — a whole head.
“My teacher said, ‘I wouldn’t advise that, especially with someone specific,’” Holmes recalls. “He told me most people’s first attempt at a head isn’t even recognizable.”
Undeterred, Holmes, who was in his fifties at the time, followed his muse. At the end of class, the professor perused the completed three-dimensional portrait — and was satisfied. Says Holmes: “I think he was surprised that it actually looked like my friend.”
Until that point, Holmes had been an Air Force officer, a professor, and an engineer. Though he did some mechanical drawing in engineering school, “that was about the extent of my experience with art,” he says. But he maintains that his sculpting skills are a natural extension of his engineering stint.
“My brain works in three dimensions, and [sculpting] is similar to the engineering process because you’re conceptualizing, and taking steps to go from a plan to a final product,” explains Holmes, who owned a business that built instrumentation to reduce the energy consumption of industrial plants.
He took the discovery of his latent talent seriously, reading books on portrait sculpting, learning by trial and error. Just a year after that initial class, he completed a 3-D portrait of a friend who loved the piece so much he wanted it in bronze.
“So we took the [finished clay piece] to the foundry for them to cast the bronze,” Holmes says. “I told the owner that it was my first try. And he looked at me and said, ‘It’s really, really good.’”
Holmes has received similar high praise over the last 18 years, as he’s turned his hobby into a full-blown business. One of his mentors, a Prague sculptor named Olinka Broadfoot, told Holmes he possessed a “rare gift” for capturing emotion. “I’ll get into a zone and can feel the creative energy entering my body and exiting through my hands,” he says. “When I look at the resulting piece, it’s hard to believe that I made it.”
Holmes has completed commissioned work for, among others, former Indiana governor Edgar Whitcomb and former dean of Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology Herman Moench. He says his projects can take anywhere from three days to three years to complete, depending on whether or not a piece “pops from the beginning.” (Bruiser, his bulldog portrait, took around two months.)
Holmes and his wife moved to Western North Carolina after Hurricane Florence destroyed their house in New Bern last fall, and the sculptor is in the process of establishing himself as an artist in a region packed with them. While he’s still interested in taking on commissioned work, he’s also focused on making and selling more accessible outdoor sculpture with quirky, appealing faces, including garden stakes and weather vanes.
“When people see realistic faces, it can be moving,” he says. “People get emotional, and I love to watch their reactions.
“Luckily, they’ve been pretty favorable so far.”
Bill Holmes, Mars Hill. Holmes’ work is carried by Reems Creek Nursery (76 Monticello Road, Weaverville, 828-645-3937, reemscreek.com). For more information, see billholmessculpture.com or e-mail the artist at firstname.lastname@example.org.