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Shaping a legacy

Statue of golfer at the golf course in Winnebago.

Winnebago artist, 92, has sculptures across the state… and is still sculpting

When visitors to the Minnesota State Capitol view a bust of Martin Luther King, Jr., Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey or author-environmentalist Sigurd Olson, they may not be aware that these statues–and many more like them–were created by George Bassett, a now 92-year-old artist who lives in Winnebago, Minn. His work is on exhibit throughout Minnesota and beyond, and he’s still working.

In Winnebago, his local claim to fame is the life-size bronze statue of a golfer at the Riverside Town and Country Club, located between Winnebago and Blue Earth. As with many of his sculptures of more famous people, Bassett had a live model for the statue. Derek Abel, who was 14 years old at the time, played golf on the course and was a member of the Blue Earth varsity golf team. The bronze statue was unveiled 10 years ago.

“Derek was the perfect model,” Bassett said. “I like to use live models when I can. I usually make a small sketch first to get proportions. The model poses for the sketch if possible, including Hubert Humphrey, who later wrote me a nice letter.

George Bassett with his original sculpture of John Paul II from which rubber molds were made. Photo by Carlienne Frisch

“Using the sketch, I make an armature of wire and pipe, fill it in with Styrofoam and put a thin layer of clay over the Styrofoam. When that sets, I make a silicone rubber mold of that, brushing on the rubber thinly, maybe one-half inch thick. Then I cut the rubber and peel it off. I put wax into the rubber mold, about one-quarter inch thick. After I peel off the rubber from the wax, I apply ceramic mold over the wax, then burn the wax out, hence it’s called the ‘lost wax method.’”

At that point, the heated mold is ready for Bassett to put the hot bronze into it. He used to do this in his workshop, just across the yard from his rural Winnebago home. For the past many years, though, he has taken the wax or the clay mold to a foundry, Casting Creations in Howard Lake, where the process is completed. The body parts are welded together, and Bassett applies a patina to give the sculpture color–light brown, dark brown or reddish–and helps mount it on a pedestal.

As Bassett rubbed shoulders with quite a few notables, he made a number of “kicking Democratic donkeys,” all from the same mold. Over time, the Democratic symbol found a home with Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Sen. Ted Kennedy, and Minnesota governors Rudy Perpich and Wendell Anderson.

Bassett’s work has not focused solely on well-known persons. His pride of workmanship is evident when he discusses the statue of Danish immigrants that he created for the city of Albert Lea. He also designed the pool and mermaid at that location, using his daughter as a model for the mermaid.

Bassett could be described as a “Renaissance man.” In addition to sculpting, he has made stained glass windows and etchings, and he paints in a variety of mediums. The Winnebago Museum displays two of Bassett’s works–Ten Thousand Years Ago, a mural that depicts the area around Winnebago during the glacial period, and Four Thousand Years Ago, a mural that illustrates a buffalo hunt. In 1990, he created a 6-foot by 8-foot mural, depicting scenes from each of the wars in which Americans fought, up through the Vietnam conflict. The mural is on display at the American Legion Club in Blue Earth.

Bassett’s patriotism has deep roots. His French-Canadian ancestors settled in the American colonies and served with the colonists during the American Revolution. His great-grandfathers came to Minnesota in covered wagons.

Bassett grew up in Blue Earth during the Great Depression. After graduating from Blue Earth High School, he entered the U.S. Army and served in Europe. When WWII ended, he took the opportunity to remain in Europe to study European art and architecture. He lived in Naples, Italy, where he took art lessons.

When Bassett returned to Minnesota, he enrolled at St. Thomas College in St. Paul. There he studied art under Dr. Hugo Reny, a portrait artist and medical illustrator. After obtaining a degree, Bassett returned to the family homestead on the banks of the Blue Earth River, where he farmed while teaching art in public schools. He always pursued his own varied creative interests, for which payment came from a variety of sources.

Rubber molds were made of this original clay sculpture of Little Crow. Photo by Carlienne Frisch

“For any artwork being done, doors in a church for instance, you apply for a commission,” Bassett explained. “It’s publicized for applicants by a committee or a private person who wants something done. Many commissions come from historical societies. Right now I’m seeking a sponsor for a sculpture of the Dakota Chief Little Crow. I’ve been working with the Lower Sioux in Redwood Falls.”

Displaying in a gallery is another means of marketing. Bassett used to be with a Twin Cities gallery. Direct marketing is another outlet. Bassett has sold bear figures to Cargill and a horse figure to Pillsbury.

The subjects of Bassett’s sculptures vary. They include the American West, the circus, ballet figures, children, animals, birds and sports. Many of his smaller sculptures are displayed in his home, while others are displayed around the state. The St. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Blue Earth boasts a Bassett sculpture of Pope John Paul II. There’s a Bassett-created bust of Sigurd Olson in Ashland, Wis. Since 1986, the Sumner Library in Hennepin County has displayed a smaller version of Bassett’s Martin Luther King, Jr., sculpture. It had served as a model for the larger sculpture that was destined for the state Capitol. Bassett donated the original smaller sculpture to the library because it served a growing African-American population.

With more than seven decades of creativity behind him, Bassett isn’t about to close up shop. His current labor of love is an in-progress bust of his wife, Irene, when she was about age 50. The Bassetts, both 92 years old, have been married 68 years. They met as children, attending the same church and the same grade in school. But, that’s another story.

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