Steven Whyte at his studio in The Barnyard.
Sculptor Steven Whyte receives awards (and hate mail) for depicting history in bronze.
By Tovin Lapan
Photographs by Christopher von Steinbach
In the classroom, Steven Whyte could barely see the board or get through reading without muddling the words. The Carmel-by-the-Sea-based sculptor is shortsighted and severely dyslexic, something he easily admits now but never confessed to teachers as he scuffled through grade school in England.
"Plus, my parents were in the air force, so we were moving every two or three years," he says. "The only class that stayed with me was art. It's up close, no reading. It was something I could get the right kind of attention for."
In his last year before college, he took a ceramics class and it was "love at first touch." His academic roadblocks crumbled away as his eye for detail shined.
Whyte became the first undergraduate accepted to the prestigious Sir Henry Doulton School of Sculpture. He focused on the human form, and his talent for capturing nuances of appearance while also evoking the character and personality of the subject soon drew attention and commissions, such as one for the Speaker of the House of Commons.
In 1999, Whyte arrived in Monterey after deciding to move across the Atlantic and touring several artist towns. "I liked the history of Carmel and particularly the weather," he says. "Every day in Carmel is like a summer's day in the U.K."
Whyte eventually landed in a studio on Cannery Row before moving his shop to Carmel in 2007. He now counts numerous public commissions and large-scale monuments among his portfolio. In 2019, he completed a bust of President Jimmy Carter for his presidential library, and he has crafted bronze versions of Clint Eastwood, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Bob Hope, and Tufts University mascot Jumbo the elephant. Some of his work lives in the Smithsonian Institute's permanent collection.
Each piece starts with meticulous research. If Whyte can't study the actual subject, he uses similar sized models and photographs. Before adding clothing and accessories, he depicts the subjects nude. "It makes it look like a man in a suit rather than a suit with a head coming out of it," he says.
The process involves numerous steps from Whyte's studio to the foundry and back again, beginning with a clay sculpture. Next is a silicone mold of the clay, followed by a hollow wax casting of that mold. The wax is dipped in ceramic and allowed to dry multiple times before 2,200–degree molten bronze is poured inside. The ceramic cast is then blasted off, and the bronze sculpture is sent to Whyte's hand-picked metal working shop for finishing details, before the final patina is applied.
Whyte says his most complex work to date is a tribute to Texas A&M University's War Hymn. The final piece — a 40–foot–long chain of a dozen students with arms linked together — weighs 20,000 pounds. More recently, Whyte completed The Column of Strength, the San Francisco memorial to World War II-era comfort women and a sister installation for Seoul, Korea. Whyte weathered hate mail and a campaign to kill the project, but he's still actively seeking social justice work.
"As news and news stories become even more temporary, it's important these aspects of history are remembered," he says. "Hopefully, I sculpt things that affect the emotions of the people standing there learning about it, as well as the emotions of the people who lived it."
The gallery in the heart of Carmel village is open every day but Tuesday and houses a collection of Whyte's works in addition to a display explaining the sculpting process. To get a closer look at Whyte's method, he also welcomes visitors to his studio in The Barnyard.