Bronze by design in downtown Gresham
When she was just one year old, Heather Soderberg-Green molded her first sculpture out of soft wax — the shape of which her father described as "five variations of the female form."
Soderberg-Green's dad was her biggest fan, and he loved bringing his daughter with him to work at a bronze foundry in Flagstaff, Ariz. While he was busy, Soderberg-Green would work on her own designs, which her dad — by bronzing them — would then immortalize for her.
"I love all art forms, but bronze has stuck with me because of those early memories," Soderberg-Green said. "I love the technical and scientific aspects of it."
Gresham residents may not recognize the name of the Cascade Locks-based artist, but they are familiar with her work. Two of her pieces have been placed at the corners of Main Avenue and Third Street — first came "Driscoll" the seeing-eye dog, and most recently, during last month's Gresham Arts Festival, "Blue" the heron was installed.
Both bronze sculptures were brought to the community by the Gresham Outdoor Public Art (GOPA) committee, a nonprofit organization. For Soderberg-Green the decision was an easy one. This was the first city she called home when she moved to the state, and her love for the Gresham hasn't faded.
"Heather is a one-of-a-kind, very special person," said Judy Han, president of GOPA. "We are lucky to have her work in our community."
Soderberg-Green uses the lost-wax casting method, which is the same style that the Renaissance greats like Michelangelo used — with the added benefit of new technology to make the process smoother. The technique allows for intricate details to be included in the piece, as a duplicate metal sculpture is cast from an original.
She sculpts everything by hand, and tends to begin with the head and face of her sculpture. That allows her to shape the rest of the piece around it, guided by the personality and character she first envisioned.
"I like to make things stylized, which takes time to complete," Soderberg-Green said.
Soderberg-Green was a child prodigy. She sculpted more than 100 pieces when she was 2, and sold 30 sculptures one year later during her first art show. She received her first commission as a toddler, and was showcasing her work across several states.
Despite her talent — and love of art — she decided to follow a different path in college.
"I had a passion for law enforcement, and wanted to pursue a career as a police officer or serve in the military," Soderberg-Green said. "I rebelled."
She earned a degree in Criminal Science and Psychology from Northern Arizona University and moved to the Hawaiian Islands with her eyes set on joining the Coast Guard. Four years later Soderberg-Green was overcome by the temptation of continuing to create art, so she returned to the mainland and bronze work.
Soderberg-Green began working as a welder in Troutdale, eventually taking over as a co-owner, and becoming one of the first women to own and operate a full-service bronze foundry. Six years ago, the partners moved to their current location in Cascade Locks, 96 Wanapa St.
Piece de resistance
Soderberg-Green is a prolific artist, completing between 10 and 20 sculptures every year. One of her favorite pieces is the statue of Sacagawea, the Lemhi Shoshone woman who helped guide the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It was placed in the Cascade Locks Marine Park where the famous explorers were thought to have camped.
"Sometimes working on people is harder because if you get an aspect wrong it's more noticeable," she said.
Her current project is the most ambitious of her career. Soderberg-Green is creating a bald eagle monument that will have a 55-foot wingspan and weigh about 12 tons, the size of which necessitated a second studio location in Cascade Locks and work to be done in sections. Upon completion, patrons will send the eagle on a tour around the country to serve as the centerpiece for different art shows and events.
"Working on a monument like this is every artist's dream," Soderberg-Green said. "It's been such a challenge, because of the size and that the patrons want me to complete it by myself."
Though the eagle is her main project, Soderberg-Green likes to work on multiple sculptures at the same time because it helps her perfect them. Switching between projects provides perspective on her work, and prevents her from becoming too engrossed in any one aspect.
In addition to the eagle, she has also been working on a bear for fun. The bear could find a home at an art enthusiast's home or community if someone is drawn to the sculpture.
Once Soderberg-Green is finished with the eagle, she will begin the process of expanding her foundry, adding more space and a larger gallery to display the work done by all the artists who have objects cast at the site. The expansion will necessitate a move, with the hope to find a drier climate as well.
"We have difficulty with the weather when it's raining, so we want to move our studio to somewhere drier," she said.
Driscoll was designed by Soderberg-Green as a tribute to trainers and canines with the Boring-based Guide Dogs for the Blind — who are often seen working with new pooches in downtown Gresham.
The cast for Driscoll was originally commissioned to be displayed in Hood River alongside a sculpture of the late Ken Jernstedt, former mayor of the town and the one Driscoll helped guide. Bringing the dog to Gresham made sense for those involved because of the connection the community has with seeing-eye dogs.
"When Driscoll was placed, people fell in love with it," Han said. "They treat it like a real dog."
Soderberg-Green approached Han and the rest of GOPA with the idea of having a heron sculpture as the next piece of public art in Gresham, because of how prolific the bird is to the region. She had the cast already made, after a commission from the city of Lake Oswego, and wanted to create one for Gresham.
Usually the cost of a bronze sculpture that large would have prevented GOPA from accepting, but Soderberg-Green's generosity made it possible.
"Heather told me I have a bronze heron that I will sell to you for the price of a metal one," Han said, an offer that severely reduced the price and allowed "Blue" to come to Gresham.
"When we pulled the tarp off the sculpture I remember seeing how surprised (Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis') face was," Han said. "It is a special piece for the community."
Though there are no set plans for another sculpture from Soderberg-Green, she would love to have another piece featured in Gresham.
"Hopefully next year there will be a third collaboration," she said. "Public art is my favorite thing to work on — I want people to see and interact with my stuff."
Taking the bronze
Stop by Soderberg Gallery & Studio the next time you are in Cascade Locks. The studio is open daily for visitors and sales. Call in advance to schedule a private tour or for any purchase or special commission inquiries.
• Eagle Studio: 505 Wanapa St.
• Foundry: 96 Wanapa St.
• Call 503-869-6459