Clay mates

Jesus Cardenas

Photo by Larry Dalton

As master sculptor at the 127-year-old Gladding, McBean factory in the city of Lincoln—recently named the fastest growing city in California—Jesus Cardenas reproduces damaged or aged architectural features in the factory’s signature terra-cotta clay. In the middle of town, the factory’s complex of kilns and workshops have slowly dissolved into a living museum, the perfect environment for the annual Feats of Clay art exhibit, which ends this weekend.

How long have you been an artisan here?

I’ve been working for the company since 1968. I’ve been doing sculptures for probably around 25 years.

How do you make a piece like this [pointing to sculpture pictured above]?

First you make a flat backing like this one here, made of plaster. And then you start throwing clay on top of it. On top of the plaster you start making whatever you need to, like gargoyles or lions’ heads.

With your hands or with tools?

I have modeling tools. Clay shrinks so you have to add about 10 percent to the piece. I take dimensions using calipers. One end has got the standard dimension and the other end has the larger dimension. And we have special rulers we use. It’s already got the shrinkage added on this ruler here.

What kinds of projects do you usually create?

Gargoyles, cherubs, lions’ heads, any kind of ornament. We have a drafting department. They develop drawings for us. From the drawing we start creating models, and from the model, we make the mold. After the mold is done, then it goes to the pressroom.

What’s the most interesting piece you’ve had to sculpt?

Probably the gargoyles. They’re kind of fun to make, the way they are. When I went to Washington for the Smithsonian—last summer, I was over there for two weeks for a show called “Masters of the Building Arts"—I was demonstrating my talents for two weeks. Over a million people came to watch me and other people like stone-carvers and different things.

How many people do your job?

Right now, we have another guy who’s learning. He’s been pretty good. So, two people right now. Sometimes part-timers come and help us. There’s a lot of people who’ve got talent to do sculpting, but they only do their own work. When you come here, you have to deal with architects, dimensions, time … it’s different.

Do you do any sculpting on the side?

Yes, but other people’s work, not my own creations. No time.

Do you have signature pieces?

No. We don’t do that. We put on the Gladding, McBean logo. See, we’re working for Gladding, McBean.

Is there anything local that you’ve worked on?

You can go to Lincoln Plaza. There’s a fountain I did. And the seal of the city of Lincoln on City Hall.

Do you work a regular 40-hour week?

Yes. This place is like a museum. It’s so old, over 120 years. It’s nice … You ever seen the modeling room upstairs? I can feel the ghosts of people who used to work here a long time ago. This is where they used to work.

Who’s this [pointing to sculpted bust]?

That’s Fred Anderson, the owner of the company. Yeah, he used to be part owner of the Kings.

The pieces up here, you guys keep because you like them?

After we finish making a model, we cut the heads off, and maybe save them for our own purposes. When I was in Washington, this stone-carver told me that sometimes they use [a co-worker’s image] to make a gargoyle. If you’re a stubborn person, they create something like the devil and they put the … how the person is, their expression.

You guys don’t do that?

Not yet.

What makes you a master sculptor?

Maybe that I care about the job. I like it. I like to do the best I can to reproduce the work—even improve it if I can. I like to be part of history, and part of the future.

If something is cracked, do you reproduce all the cracks?

No. We have to make the nose, complete the piece. Like you have a parapet, and then on top, there used to be something there. I have to create something on top of that. They say, well, we want some kind of a gargoyle.

And then you get to do whatever you want?

Yes. That’s when it’s fun.