Making the Mold
Las Cruces sculptor Kelley S. Hestir, best known for her Bataan
memorial, makes memories in three dimensions.
by Jeff Berg
Island life is the thing of dreams for most people, but not for Kelley S. Hestir, this issue's cover artist. A one-time resident of Guam, Hawai'i, Tasmania, the Mariana Islands and the Virgin Islands, Hestir came back (as many people seem to do) to Las Cruces for its feel of "home."
Hestir is best known locally for her "Heroes of Bataan" sculpture and memorial at Las Cruces' Veterans Park, which last month won the Art in Public Places Award from the Doña Ana Arts Council. She is also an illustrator, painter and graphic artist, and co-founded Las Cruces' Art Forms Association and For the Love of Art Month.
"Even as a child, I knew I wanted to be an artist," Hestir says. "Those are some of my earliest memories. My older brother and sister were in grade school, so I entertained myself by making things, cutting things out of paper and such. I had an artistic mom who was very encouraging and I was also influenced by Miss Levine."
"Miss Levine" was a Las Cruces Public Schools art teacher back during Hestir's grade school days. According to Hestir, she was quite the instructor and was extremely active in getting students to learn art and then to get it displayed for the public.
"She would take all the best from Las Cruces Public Schools and have a big show in Mesilla. She did a thing called ‘Living Pictures,' which were life-size reproductions using kids in the pictures."
This, combined with continued encouragement, sealed Hestir's fate as an art major.
"I first learned about sculpting in high school. I can also draw and paint, but I liked sculpting the most. It is a bit of an overlooked art," Hestir says.
"My dad, Bill, worked at NMSU for a while and he was very encouraging as well," she goes on. "I went to UNM for a while and lived in Albuquerque for 16 years, and later my dad went to work for the Department of the Interior and was stationed in the Marianas and then in Guam for three years."
It doesn't happen often that a place will have a shortage of artists, but that is what Hestir found in the Pacific islands. There was a genuine shortage of skilled artists in a good job market, and her college art experience helped her land a graphic design position.
This was back in the "old days" of cut and paste by hand with an Xacto knife and a waxing machine, when creativity wasn't done by a click of a computer mouse.
"I went to work for a magazine called Glimpses," she recalls. "It was a high-quality, full-color glossy that covered living and traveling in Micronesia.
"But I had a desire to return to school, so I went to the University of Hawai'i, and got my bachelor's and master's, and also taught for a while. My interests were in sculpture and jewelry."
Then a relationship ended and Hestir laughs when she says, "I went home to Mom and Dad" — and found herself back in Las Cruces in 1995.
"I found myself at home in more ways than one," she adds. "I had always felt that Las Cruces was home."
She soon found a graphics job and started settling back into Las Cruces. Her background and some mentors such as Ben Bolt, Larry Sheffield and Brian Colon helped her get a bit of recognition.
A big break came when Hestir was commissioned to do the life-size "Heroes of Bataan" statue that was dedicated in 2002 and cleaned up and rededicated earlier this year.
The piece was from an idea by Joe Martinez, who had two uncles who took place in the horrific Bataan Death March in 1942, which included 1,800 soldiers from New Mexico, and by former Senator Pete Domenici.
Hestir says, "I knew they wanted three soldiers, two on the outside helping the one in the middle. It was the story of one brother being helped by another. Another artist did some sketch work with that and there was support for that idea."
Hestir says that she could have used at least two years to finish the work, but instead had only nine months. She worked with some "before and after" photos of Martinez' uncles, Juan and Pepe Baldonado of Tularosa, but had to interpret some of the work, since the pictures were only front views of the two men.
She adds that the work is meant to represent everybody, both Filipino and American, not just the Baldonados. "Their faces and Joe's were used as references."
Hestir added the memorial walkway, which symbolically represents those who started the march and those who finished it. The footsteps are from actual survivors of the Death March, of which fewer than 100 of the Americans involved still survive.
"Gerry Schurtz was most instrumental in helping with the footprints," she says. "His father was from Deming and Gerry has been working to keep the survivors and their families together."
Hestir shares the bittersweet story of how she got the first set of footprints: "I was working with Gerry, getting ready to do them, and got a call from Gerry saying that one of the survivors was in the hospital in intensive care, and we'd better hurry. But by the time I got to the hospital, he had passed away. But the family and IC staff let me take his footprints."
The man, Lorenzo Banegas, was one of three Death March survivors who saw Hestir's three-foot model of the proposed work and gave it their approval. Later, Hestir was surprised and pleased to find that Banegas' grand-nephew was one of her students at NMSU, where she teaches an art class.
Looking back on the Bataan sculpture, she says, "It was quite a project as you can imagine, but experience and education allowed for delivery in the end."
She adds with a smile, "Along with some help from friends."
When asked how she goes about creating a work, Hestir replies, "You often have to be an inventor when you do a sculpture. You have to engineer how long it will last, consider safety, lighting and viewing distance. I've also worked with chemists, electricians and optical engineers to make sure everything is done correctly. It's not like a painting with just one side, this is multidimensional.
"When you are creating a sculpture, you have to consider every view, time, time of day, and a good sculptor will consider time and space. It's not a depiction; it is actual object in space at a particular moment."
She offers two fun quips about sculpture: "A statue is what you back into when you are looking at a painting" and "It lives in clay, dies in bronze."
Hestir notes that for modeling materials, she does prefer clay, but plaster and wax can also be used, along with stone at times.
Although she recalls carving soap as a child, she says, "I'm not a carver, unlike Michelangelo who was. You can only subtract from stone but with clay or wax you can add or subtract."
Installation can also be tricky, Hestir says. Does the piece come in parts or all at once? There are many variables that people other than the artist never consider.
“Wind Dog” (detail): clay, encaustic.
"And then you hope that your piece turns out the way you thought it would. With the Bataan piece, the mold makers would come and take each piece away, so I never saw it beforehand. They were really targeting the 60th anniversary of the Death March, so after the idea and the fundraising, there were only nine months left to finish it. I remember working on the model on 9/11 and wondering if an eight-foot enlargement could be done in nine months!"
She adds, "One of the things I'm most proud of about it is that it doesn't glorify war. It shows the tragedy — a tragic moment."
A friend of Hestir's, Stephanie Dove, made a documentary film about the Bataan Memorial, entitled Bataan — Making of Memory, which Hestir served as a producer for. It screened in Las Cruces as part of the rededication ceremony this past April. The film tells the story of the survivors and of the creators of the memorial who didn't want the story to be lost to history.
When not working on her art, Hestir can be found at NMSU, where she is an academic advisor for the College of Extended Learning and teaches an art class as well, something she would like to do full time. In her free time, she appreciates bike riding, running in the desert, gardening and the animals at her home, which include several cats, a dog and some chickens.
Hestir's other works are often inspired by animals (including her own), politics and faces. She says, "I don't do abstract work, but I sometimes will offer political allegories."
Some of Hestir's current sculptural work is inspired by a book that caught her attention, entitled The Forever War, by novelist Joe Haldeman. Her "Venus" series is based on the premise of the award-winning 1974 science fiction novel, wherein a "reluctant military conscript" is sent through time and space to fight a war in a distant galaxy.
"He survives, but when he returns to Earth, each time, everything is different," Hestir says.
Since the hero's war experience has taken him so many years into the future, he is unable to adjust to what society has become on Earth. He re-enlists, only to find that all life on Earth is different each time he returns.
"The Venus Series is a mythical cultural concept of beauty and how it changes over time," Hestir explains. "One (particular) piece is designed to be a combination of all races."
Each of Hestir's works is unique and beautiful in its own way. Her drawings and paintings are thought-provoking without being intimidating. Her explanations of the allegorical nature of much of her work make them easy to comprehend but strong in message.
Picasso's comment on sculpting seems to fit Hestir very well: "Sculpture is the art of intelligence."
Kelley Hester currently has a studio at Mikey's Place in Mesilla Park and exhibits at the Adobe Patio Gallery in Mesilla, the Main Street Gallery in Las Cruces and The Studio Space in Silver City, 109 N. Bullard St., 534-9291. For more on Bataan: The Making of a Memory, see www.2lanehighwayproductions.com.
Senior writer Jeff Berg lives in Las Cruces.