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Q&A with Teddy Roosevelt sculptor Toby Mendez

The Maryland-based sculptor Antonio Tobias “Toby” Mendez has completed his first official sculpture of a U.S. president. The 7½-foot bronze, installed Oct. 26 outside the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site, depicts the 26th president much as he looked on the day of his inauguration in Buffalo on Sept. 14, 1901.

To create the monumental piece, Mendez -- whose father Tony is the ex-CIA agent whose role in the Iranian hostage crisis was the basis of the film "Argo" -- did a deep dive into Roosevelt's life story. He started with a pictorial history of the president, then moved on to Edmund Morris' biography "Theodore Rex." After paging through that and a few other Roosevelt biographies, Mendez emerged with the elegant and confident image of the young president now permanently installed on the west lawn of 641 Delaware Ave.

A new statue of Theodore Roosevelt by Antonio Tobias "Toby" Mendez in front of the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site, Monday, Oct. 26, 2015. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

A new statue of Theodore Roosevelt by Antonio Tobias "Toby" Mendez in front of the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site, Monday, Oct. 26, 2015. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

As the sculpture was being installed on Monday, Mendez took a few moments to answer questions about the process of creating the portrait, his other commissions and his fascinating family history.

Q: Have you done other presidential sculptures?

A: This is the first official portrait that I’ve done of a president.

Q: What were the particular challenges of this piece?

A: They’re all very similar, but the one thing with Teddy -- he’s so recognizable and he’s also so well known for the [classic] caricature of Teddy Roosevelt. I wanted to make sure it was a good likeness of him but not that caricature. Not the toothy smile or anything that’s exaggerated. It’s much more contemplative. It’s capturing the moment of him assuming the presidency after the assassination of McKinley.

Q: What kind of research did you do?

A: I have a pictorial history of Teddy Roosevelt, as far as imagery goes.

I started with a tour of the site here, the inaugural site. That was about a year ago, October of last year. I listened to the book on tape of "Theodore Rex" and read through several other biographies about him.

One of the things that really inspired this image of him: When Teddy first came to Buffalo, he came wearing a top hat, which is not how we think of Teddy Roosevelt but when he came to Buffalo, he wore a top hat, formal suit and then during the funeral procession and services, that’s how they dress. So you see him with that elegant top hat, the coat, it has a sense of formality to him. One thing that I really like about Teddy Roosevelt is that he had that personality of the Roughrider, the cattle man, that part of his personality, but he also had kind of an elegant leader side of his personality. He lived in both worlds. He never dumbed himself down.

Q: Tell me a bit about your training and some other work you've done.

A: I went to school in Chicago at the School of the Art Institute. I did my bachelor’s there. I’ve been working as a sculptor for about 30 years. I trained one year in Spain, where I learned processes that use use when you’re doing heroic-scale sculptures.

I’ve done work on the U.S. Navy Memorial. I’ve done sports sculptures. For the Boston Red Sox, I did Carl Yastrzemski and for the Baltimore Orioles, I did all of the Hall of Famers that are at Camden Yards. I did Ghandi in Long Island, New York and Thurgood Marshall in Annapolis, Md.

Q: I understand you have an interesting family background.

A: [My father] is a very fine landscape painter, and he and I have shown together as artists for 30 years. His painting studio is where my sculpture studio is. [He does] mostly oils, acrylics, watercolors and pastels, in kind of an impressionist style.

Actually, for the CIA he started off creating false documents, so he needed to be an artist. He needed to be able to draw. So he had an art background before the agency. That’s how he was recruited, as an artist. My mother was an artist, and my stepmother is a photographer. It’s definitely in the family.

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