What says “Bull City” better than a bull?
Leah Foushee Waller and her husband Mike are the sculptors behind Major, the iconic bronze bull in downtown Durham. In memory of local leader George Watts Hill, the Central Carolina Bank (CCB) commissioned Major as the first sculpture cast in the George Watts Hill Pavilion. Standing majestically in Durham Central Park, it’s home to the Liberty Arts Foundry, where you may now find Leah and Mike pouring metal, or laughing on the playground with their kids.
Leah specializes in realistic sculpture, which is exactly what it sounds like. Instead of abstract designs, she sculpts recognizable figures to ensure “everyone, no matter who they are, can relate” to her message.
It’s this clarity of self-expression that drew her to visual and spatial art in the first place. Growing up, she loved building Legos and rearranging her room. Middle school introduced her to theater, until high school kindled her passion for the visual arts.
“Unless you’re writing your own plays or poems, you’re expressing someone else’s message,” she explained. “Whereas in visual art, you’re expressing your own ideas, whether it’s a painting or sculpture. I was really interested in political and social art, and the impact that could have on others who saw it.”
No matter Leah’s life stage, the themes in her work reflect “what’s consuming my thoughts.” After she graduated from college in 2002, her sculptures expressed anti-war and anti-oil concerns about the war in Iraq. Nowadays, her focus is on family, especially the mantle of motherhood. Her latest series “Buttons” explores the generational journey of mothers “keeping it all together.”
The idea came from connecting with other women. Leah inherited a tin can of buttons from her grandmother, and another randomly from someone else’s aunt. She’s not alone.
“Every woman I talk to says, ‘Yeah, I have this collection of buttons from my grandmother too.’ Which is kind of crazy, like the cookie tin can!” she laughed. “I wasn’t expecting that.”
Nature and nurture come full circle in Leah’s third role as an art teacher at the Central Park School for Children. Traditional sculpture is dwindling, almost becoming a lost art, she told us. So she loves bringing her K-4 students to the foundry, to “open their eyes to something they’ve never seen before.”
“For them to be like, ‘Whoa! Molten metal! I didn’t know you could melt metal!’ It’s very nostalgic for me because it’s something that opened my eyes when I was in college,” she shared. Leah wants her students to experience the ancient awe of seeing metal pour into a mold they created with their own hands…and understand that it’s contemporary, because people still do it.
“I want to teach people how to do what I do. Children all the way through adults: how to create art, how to use materials, how to express themselves.”
No doubt, she’s pouring it forward.