Frudakis, an omnipresent sculptor

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Frudakis with a model of the 8-foot-tall sculpture at his studio in Glenside. (Ben Mikesell/Staff Photographer)

Chances are you see and interact with Zenos Frudakis quite often.

You don't know him, and you probably haven't read about the 64-year-old sculptor unless you've glanced at captions on photos of his famous work in The Inquirer and elsewhere: the 10-foot-tall bronze Frank Rizzo sculpture at the Municipal Services Building Plaza across from City Hall; the similarly oversize Steve Carlton at Citizens Bank Park; the 16-foot-high, abstract bronze Paradigm Shift at Fort Washington's GMAC Corporate Center; and, most notably, Freedom, his 20-foot-long, 8-foot-high bronze masterwork of figures emerging from the Vine Street facade of the former GlaxoSmithKline headquarters in Philly.

Freedom won Frudakis international acclaim, and his works can be found all over the world. There is a Mark Twain bust at NYC's Lotos Club; a bronze over-life-size Nina Simone in North Carolina; an in-progress Ben Franklin head for a private client outside Philly; the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead for the North Carolina Arboretum; totems at Japan's Utsukushi-ga-hara Open Air Museum; and numerous golf and baseball greats.

"You're really the first to write about me, which is nice," Frudakis says with a laugh from his Glenside studio. "I feel as if I have as much to say as my work does."

His relative anonymity might have something to do with his being a private man who doesn't hit what he calls "the art cocktail-party circuit" often. More likely, it's about how critics view representational art, public works, portrait busts, and sculptures - the majority of what he has created in his long career. In 1972, he moved to Philadelphia from Gary, Ind., where he worked in the U.S. Steel mills ("good for the hands, not the spirit"). He earned degrees at the University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he studied under his brother, Evangelos, himself a public sculptor.

"We got our genes for art from my dad, I think," Zenos says of the late poet and musician Vasilis Frudakis. "Every day as a kid I watched him with his lyra - a Cretan fiddle he played on his knee - and saw the discipline he had, the creativity in making lyrics for so much of what he played and sang."

Though Frudakis said his father was a loner, he also called him an educator and inspiration when it came to teaching his sons how to be entertaining, independent businessmen. "To run your own thing, be . . . self-employed - that was key to him, and to me. I haven't had another job other than sculpting in over 40 years."

Much has inspired Frudakis besides his father: listening to works related to his sculptural subjects (books on tape of Ben Franklin, the recordings of Nina Simone); the influence of philosopher-writers such as Nietzsche, poets like Theodore Roethke, and the sculptors Rodin and Michelangelo - figurative, portrait artisans; craftsmen who knew every crevice of their work before even considering abstraction.

This is something Frudakis stresses, the rigorous study and avid, active learning of all skills related to painting and sculpting before improvising or abstracting. "It's easy just to make a blob, but try detailing a face or a body and capturing its nuances, its soul, its truths - that balance of the emotional, the mental and the physical," he says. "I just have more respect for things that are harder to accomplish."

After graduating, Frudakis stayed in the area because of the local commissions he received and his proximity to New York, Washington, and the rest of Pennsylvania, where many of his connections, public and private, are.

Of Philadelphia, he says, "I get a lot of work here. I know people here. I worried when I was a younger man that if I did ever move, I'd lose my commissions. It's a great big-small town and my commissions come from good word of mouth. Look, I'm not the most sociable guy, don't go to parties, so maintaining connections is crucial."

It's personal or more conceptual work that helps keep his studio thriving.

"Doing portrait busts and sculptures, which I did first, was a particular skill of which I'm good at," says Frudakis, pointing to bronzes he's crafted of Martin Luther King Jr., Dwight Eisenhower, the Phillies' Mike Schmidt, singer Don McLean, and Philly city planner Ed Bacon. "Really good. Some of them are private, but a lot of them - and I've done well over 50 - are public. Which I love."

Not every portrait sculpture he loves gets loved back. His 1998 Rizzo was controversial, as its subject was, because of the onetime Philly police commissioner and mayor's bombast and oversight of police strong-arm tactics in the civil rights era.

"Catching flak? I did a little. I mean, look, I was in school in '72 when he was mayor and all of that polarization occurred. Yet, before he died, he was going to African American churches, to try to open his mind. I wanted to show Rizzo as a man who was trying to be enlightened."

Yes, there are subjects Frudakis won't touch, and, no, he won't say what or whom. Whether portrait sculptures or conceptual, he loves public works like those at the GMAC Corporate Center and GlaxoSmithKline. It's not necessarily because of the money, either.

"It usually pays better, but not always," he says. "You'd be surprised. You can lose your shirt. Especially if it's a billable-first project and there are cost overruns on material such as bronze, which is expensive."

Frudakis wants people to see his work, reach people. He wants audiences to interact with his work, as they do with 2001's Freedom. That sculpture represents the struggle for liberation from fear, oppression, heartache, addiction, handicaps, political regimes - "whatever it is that people want to be free from," says Frudakis. To that end, he made the four-figure work both personal (it contains hidden messages: his face, and the faces of family members) as well as open-ended, moving and abstract, so people can see and feel themselves within it.

"It's why I left a standing-room space for audiences amongst the stages of being imprisoned to breaking free. I want you to feel the same victory as I do, as everyone does, and to interact. That's what I hope all of my work does - make you a part of something greater, yet uniquely yours."