Autistic son's love of movies and the memory of a late friend inspired man to accept project
CHAMPAIGN — Artist Rick Harney had taken a six- to seven-year break from making life-size cast-bronze sculptures when he received a compelling phone call last year.
It came from Donna Anderson, who at the time was in a hospital bed in Chicago after having had a heart transplant.
The travel agent for Roger Ebert's Film Festival had seen Harney's work and wanted him to create a commemorative full-scale sculpture of Ebert to be placed in front of the Virginia Theatre, home of the famed critic's annual film festival.
The fact that Anderson called after having major heart surgery touched Harney.
But he had an even more profound reason for agreeing to the commission.
He had taken those several years off to spend more time at home with his autistic son, Ben, now 25. Ben Harney is obsessed with movies and movie reviews, particularly Ebert's.
"We've probably listened to more 'Siskel and Ebert' footage than any other household in America," Harney said.
Harney also had another personal, if indirect, connection to the Ebert project. His late friend, Kay Seefeld, was a Bloomington-based painter who like Ebert had medical problems that left her appearance altered.
She died in October 2012; Ebert passed on April 4 this year.
"I thought about Roger and how he lived his life with such love and grace, as did my friend, in addition to all the other things they did professionally," Harney said.
"What they gave to us was kind of a lesson: There's an art to living, too."
Harney, who lives in Normal and has a studio in downtown Bloomington, made his remarks during a news conference Tuesday morning outside the Virginia. There, Anderson's husband, Champaign lawyer Scott Anderson, announced a campaign to raise nearly $125,000 for the Ebert Sculpture Project.
That amount also covers publicity and marketing, installation, maintenance, insurance and the fundraising campaign website, http://www.ebertsculpture.com.
If the money is raised, it would be the 10th full-size cast-bronze sculpture created by Harney — he has the casting done at InBronze, a small foundry in northern Illinois that he says does great work.
Among others he's made are three of Abraham Lincoln, one of Adlai Stevenson II and one of Illinois Wesleyan University President Minor Myers Jr., who died in 2003.
The main reason Harney was chosen for the Ebert Sculpture Project was that Donna Anderson had the idea for it after seeing the Stevenson image at the Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington.
A few years later, while recuperating from the heart surgery, she decided to get the ball rolling. The first thing she did was call the airport to ask who had memorialized Stevenson. Then she called Harney.
"We reviewed his website," Scott Anderson said Thursday. "We had a chance to see several of his sculptures. One of our favorites is Minor Myers — we knew Minor Myers, and the sculpture really captures his essence."
The couple felt Harney also has the kind of talent and "sympathetic approach" necessary for commemorating Ebert.
Harney, who has a bachelor's degree in sculpture from Illinois State University, also carves in wood — that's actually his focus now. He also works in ceramics and makes prints and drawings.
Harney's not sure when he would start on the Ebert piece — Scott Anderson said it depends to some extent on the rate the donations come in. The committee hopes to have the sculpture in place before the 2014 Ebertfest in late April.
"We don't want to spend people's money if for some reason this doesn't happen," he said. "If we find we're bringing in new money and see we have more money coming in and will be able to pay for this sculpture, we'll probably go ahead."
Since the fundraising campaign began Tuesday, the project has drawn, as of Thursday afternoon, 18 donations totaling about $5,000. The Andersons plan to give to the cause, too, and will ask other members of the Ebert Sculpture Project Committee to follow suit.
Anderson said it's possible the Ebert Sculpture Project Committee will explore seeking donations via a "crowdfunding" website like Kickstarter.
For now, the Community Foundation of East Central Illinois is handling online donations via http://www.ebertsculpture.org.
People who want to donate via check may make it out to the Community Foundation of East Central Illinois, with "Ebert sculpture" in the memo line, and send it to the foundation at 307 W. University Ave., Champaign, IL 61820.
Money raised in excess of what's needed for the sculpture and related costs will be given to the Roger Ebert Film Center at the University of Illinois, Ebertfest and the Virginia Theatre, in proportions determined by Chaz Ebert, Ebert's widow and the Ebertfest emcee.
If erected, Harney's three-dimensional image of Ebert would face east by northeast, on a plaza just east of the Virginia marquee. That area is now covered with a planter and small trees.
The trees would be removed and the planter leveled so that people who use wheelchairs could roll right up to one of the movie theater seats on either side of Ebert's image.