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Bronze Magic

A Danville sculptor’s forceful response to 9/11 goes on display after 10 years in the making.


Anthony Petru


Mario Chiodo can recall clearly the horror he felt when he saw airplanes smashing into the upper floors of the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001. As the towers tumbled, Chiodo felt his usually optimistic American spirit impaired by a ghastly cocktail of terror and depression.

Courtesy of chiodoart.com“I thought of my two young daughters, and how I did not want them to grow up in a world of that kind of hate and cynicism,” says the Danville sculptor. “I wanted to try to do something to reverse this overwhelming sense of negativity, to create something that could inspire people.”

As the news media relentlessly discussed terrorist Osama bin Laden, Chiodo felt compelled to make art that celebrated people who fought for human rights, freedom, and the good of others. “I was driven by the idea of people who made a difference, regardless of their background or their faults, who went out of their way to help other people,” he says.

Ten years later, Chiodo’s vision is about to become a reality, or at least three-quarters of it. On September 6, the sculptor will unveil three of four sections of his massive Remember Them: Champions for Humanity installation in Henry J. Kaiser Memorial Park in Oakland’s Uptown district. Former President Bill Clinton, Governor Jerry Brown, and Martin Luther King III are expected to attend the unveiling.

Chiodo, who grew up in Oakland, felt a calling to be a sculptor at a very young age. “I turned on the TV when I was five or six, and saw someone making a sculpture of Abraham Lincoln, and I was mesmerized,” he says. Chiodo, whose mother immigrated to the United States from Italy, worked first as a special effects and makeup artist on movies before creating a line of Halloween masks and consumer products. Eventually, he acted on his dream to become a sculptor and has since created ultrarealistic, larger-than-life work for the lobbies of casinos, hotels, and museums from coast to coast, such as the Legends of Jazz installation at Bally’s Hotel in New Orleans.

Fittingly, when Chiodo came up with the concept for the Champions for Humanity sculpture, his original inspiration—Abraham Lincoln—was the first subject who came to mind. Former South African President Nelson Mandela, abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King Jr. followed. From there, Chiodo let his list of heroes grow organically.Courtesy of chiodoart.com

“I did not force the list. I just started to write down people whose personal stories had affected me,” says Chiodo. “The 25 champions I decided on come from all walks of life. They are famous world leaders such as Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela and FDR, and remarkable individuals such as Rosa Parks and Helen Keller.”

The $8 million–plus Oakland project has required a remarkable collaboration between the city (former Mayor Jerry Brown played a key role in acquiring the park space, which was privately owned), the Oakland Chamber of Commerce, private corporations, and Chiodo, who donated all his sculpting time.

“If you have done any traveling,” says Joe Haraburda, president and CEO of the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, “you know that the world’s greatest cities are just filled with art. We see the monument as a destination for people visiting our city. It’s a wonderful point of inspiration that here in Oakland, which has had its challenges over the years, a world-class bronze monument will stimulate and attract visitors.”

Haraburda says that the city and Chiodo still need about $2.25 million for the final section to be installed. When completed, the monument will use more than 60,000 pounds of bronze and display 25 heroes across four sculptures that connect in a helix to symbolize the common DNA of all humans. A study model of the Champions for Humanity monument was recently installed at De La Salle High’s Hoffman Center, and the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis is planning to display the original model of the sculpture sometime after the Oakland unveiling.

The park in Oakland will also include a granite wall with braille quotes next to the bronzed faces of all 25 heroes so visually impaired visitors can feel the words of Lincoln and King, and the other historic figures. “It’s a simple enough concept, but it has never been done before,” says Chiodo.

After spending the past decade creating enormous, stunningly realistic versions of the champions, and casting them in bronze, Chiodo is ready to unveil his gift to his beloved hometown. The artist hopes that the cumulative effect of the sculpture will magnify the efforts of each historical figure and the impact that each had on society. “The sculpture celebrates the strength and diversity of every culture and religion—because each has great representatives who have overcome major obstacles along the way,” he says.

Champions for Humanity will be unveiled on September 6 at 1 p.m. in the park at 19th Street and Fox Court, near Telegraph Avenue in Oakland; find more information at remember-them.org.

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