Shaping Immortality

Zenos Frudakis has become golf’s unlikely go-to sculptor
Zenos Frudakis

There are other routes into Philadelphia’s city center, but Zenos Frudakis likes to take Kelly Drive along the Schuylkill River. The mile markers are great art. He says the street is named for Grace Kelly, whose childhood home is nearby, but it’s not. It’s named for her older brother, John B. Kelly Jr., an Olympic athlete and accomplished rower. We whiz by The Pilgrim by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and The Cowboy by Frederic Remington. The beige RAV4 he’s driving rattles past the statue of Ulysses S. Grant. Daniel Chester French did Grant; Edward Clark Potter did the horse. With his hat pulled low, Grant seems, for all eternity, to have the weight of civilization draped across the shoulders of his greatcoat. Four days after Grant’s death in 1877, plans began for the memorial. It took the people of Pinehurst four minutes to figure out how they would honor Payne Stewart.

On Oct. 25, 1999, a group of Pinehurst Resort and Country Club executives were returning from a trip to Scotland, a victory lap after staging a highly successful U.S. Open. On their last evening at the Turnberry Hotel, in a conversation that scratched the surface of “maybe,” they discussed how to properly honor the person they felt was their champion. The next day, moments after their plane landed at New Jersey’s Newark International Airport—the word “Liberty” would be added to the name after 9/11—they were paged. “Payne’s airplane had just gone down,” says Pat Corso, then the resort’s chief executive officer. “At that moment, in the airport at Newark, it was decided we were going to do a statue.”

The sculptor picked to create what has become one of golf’s most iconic pieces of art was Frudakis. The statue with Stewart punching forward and kicking back was unveiled two years and change from the time Stewart and five other people perished when their private jet suffered a catastrophic decompression after taking off from Orlando, Florida. The Learjet flew like a dolphin—climbing and diving, climbing and diving—halfway across the country until it ran out of fuel and crashed into the most remote acres of a farmer’s field in Mina, South Dakota.

Stewart’s widow, Tracey, had ultimate and unquestioned veto power over the likeness of her husband. She was at the unveiling along with their children, Chelsea and Aaron. They gathered the evening before the dedication at the Pine Crest Inn, Stewart’s favorite local haunt. Dick Coop, Stewart’s sports psychologist, was there, as were Mike Hicks, his caddie, and Dixie Fraley, the widow of Robert, one of Stewart’s agents, who also perished in the crash. They told stories that made them laugh and others that made them cry.

The next morning was misty and cloudy when the St. Andrews University (North Carolina) fife and drum corps began marching up the 18th fairway. “Tracey, she was still so shaken. I was next to her but I didn’t want to bother her. I felt like I would be trespassing on her emotions,” says Frudakis. Before the ceremony began, Rosalie, Frudakis’ wife at the time, saw Aaron sitting on the floor of the pro shop, inside a circular clothing rack, hiding. After all the talking and the unveiling was finished, he was asked to recreate the 15-footer Stewart made to win the Open. It took him one more try than his father.

Frudakis didn’t go looking for golf; it came looking for him. In 1996, an art dealer in Atlanta helped secure his services for the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame, to create a statue of Arnold Palmer that found a home on Augusta’s Riverwalk. In addition to Palmer and Stewart, Frudakis’ golf résumé includes likenesses of Jack Nicklaus, the Bob Jones sculpture the USGA uses for the award of the same name and another Jones statue for East Lake Country Club, where Jones grew up.

Zenos Frudakis Studio
Inspiration is everywhere in Frudakis’ Philadelphia-area studio. Tools and clay passed down from other artists mingle with printed images of his subjects. Looking down on it all are the busts Frudakis creates as part of his sculpting process, including those of Benjamin Franklin, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln and Arnold Palmer.

The studio where Frudakis works is in a carriage house tucked behind his home that sits behind a wrought-iron fence in a modest Philly suburb. The two-story house, where he lives alone (he and Rosalie are now divorced, though she still manages the art business from an office off the kitchen), would be a fixer-upper if he cared about that sort of thing. He doesn’t. Four cats—Zane Grey, Evie, Bing Clawsby and Mr. Gray, whose head is the size of a softball—are his companions. He works until one, two, three in the morning, then walks on a treadmill or plays his guitar plugged into a speaker the size of a crockpot until the work recedes into the night and he can sleep. The guitar was a gift from his friend, Don McLean—the “American Pie” one. “Sometimes I think I’ve lived my art instead of my life,” says Frudakis.

There is no shelf, no corner of the studio to look at that doesn’t look back at you. Benjamin Franklin. Ulysses S. Grant. Martin Luther King Jr. Bernard Darwin. The boxer James J. Braddock. Clarence Darrow. Enrico Fermi. Philadelphia Phillies Mike Schmidt and Robin Roberts. Albert Einstein. Alexis de Tocqueville. And, of course, Stewart. “It gives me pleasure, personally, and immense satisfaction to bring people back to life from history,” says Frudakis. “I was hoping with Tracey and the family [that] I brought him back to life in a way. So I tried to make him look very vital, very alive, so that people would feel when they were next to him that they were around someone alive, not someone who was in this terrible tragedy.”

The carriage house is crammed with heads and torsos; modeling tools passed down from artist to artist; a 10,000-year-old skull; photos everywhere—some for work, some for memories; sculpting stands, armatures, books; and clay with a whiff of immortality about it. There are pictures of both Nicklaus and Palmer posing. “You try to find some common ground, a bridge, so you’re not two isolated islands. What do we have in common? The hard work. Nicklaus told me that he practiced until his hands bled when he was young. He asked me, ‘Do you golf?’ I said, ‘No. Do you sculpt?’” They laughed together. He points to a picture of Palmer. “See how he’s depressed? Someone came over and whispered. He just had a friend die,” says Frudakis. “Later we’re having dinner and I noticed people want his attention. He let his dinner go cold and he went to talk to people. And that’s who he was, I think.”

When Frudakis was working on his Stewart sculpture, the family loaned him some of Payne’s plus fours and a pair of his shoes. Tracey saw her husband as a younger man than the one who passed away at 42, so Stewart’s bronze face is forever 10 years more youthful than the man who made the putt. Frudakis uses an oil-based clay that doesn’t dry. He has a bit of clay once used by Saint-Gaudens and a larger amount that once belonged to D.C. French. “I mixed that in with all my clay. It wasn’t enough to do a big figure, so I thought if I just put a little bit in each of mine, then I’ll know it’s in there,” he says. 

Frudakis grew up in Gary, Indiana, and worked at U.S. Steel as a cinder snapper, throwing cinder and coke into a 3,000-degree furnace, until he went to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts at 21. His father, Vasilis (he was called Bill), was a gambler. “He always carried a pistol,” Frudakis says. “He was a little bit fractured, a little maybe bipolar, a little manic-depressive. Maybe a lot.” Bill left his first wife to marry a woman 30 years younger, Zenos’ mother, Kassiani, effectively creating two Frudakis families: one in the East, the other in the Midwest. The sculptor Evangelos Frudakis, 30 years older than Zenos, would become his mentor as well as being his half-brother.

Zenos Frudakis
Zenos Frudakis

His wide-ranging work in golf notwithstanding, Frudakis is probably best known for Freedom, his sculpture at 16th and Vine in Philadelphia. It depicts four figures in various stages of liberation from a 20-by-8-foot wall of bronze. As the figure struggles to free itself, it becomes more developed. The wall incorporates many smaller pieces within the larger sculpture. “As close up as you get or as far back as you get, there’s something to see. So, when people are walking by—as opposed to driving by and getting the big picture—it’s going to take years to find all the stuff that’s in it. The world works that way. Everybody wants to be free of something.”

When Pinehurst’s executives commissioned Frudakis to do the Stewart piece—a minor engineering project, given that the figure balances on one leg—they knew in the airport at Newark what the pose would be. But nothing stands alone for Frudakis. “People tend to see the moment before, the moment of and the moment after. They kind of put it together,” he says. 

It’s an everyday occurrence behind the 18th green of the No. 2 course that golfers strike Stewart’s pose next to the man himself. “Even now when people think of Pinehurst, they think back to the fist pump and him talking to Phil Mickelson,” says Robert Dedman Jr., the resort’s owner. “It’s something I think the golf world will never forget. It’s interesting to see people just want to kind of touch that, share that.” As if it might go on forever.

Payne Stewart Statue at Pinehurst No.2
Players who finish Pinehurst No. 2 often pause to take in the iconic Payne Stewart statue. It’s a gift to the game from someone who never expected to play such a long-lasting role in its history. Photo: David Alexander/Getty Images