PITTSBURGH — Mindy Ellis grew up a Pittsburgh Pirates fan, some of her most vivid memories of the Bucs going back to their early 1960s days at Forbes Field.
“I liked listening to the games with my grandmother,’’ recalled Ellis, whose work the last 20 years has adorned the walls of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. “She would have her Iron City [beer], just be sitting and listening, and I’d be piddling around the house while she listened to Bob Prince call the shots.
“Those are the memories that bring you home.’’
Since 1995, Ellis, 57, has been the exclusive sculptor charged with crafting the clay images that are turned into the iconic bronze plaques for the Hall of Fame. She sculpted Pedro Martinez’s likeness earlier this year as part of the incoming Class of ’15, and during her tenure she also created the Hall images of former Red Sox stars Jim Rice, Wade Boggs, Carlton Fisk, and Dennis Eckersley.
Of the 310 bronze images that will hang in the Plaque Gallery as of induction weekend in July, a total of 76 will have been sculpted by Ellis. Her name isn’t to be found anywhere in Cooperstown, but her fingerprints and imagination, embedded deep beneath those bronzed visages, are all over the place.
“I feel I put myself on their face and move around to feel the bones and muscles underneath,’’ said Ellis, who works in tandem with Matthews International, the bronze foundry here that has manufactured the plaques for Cooperstown since the mid-1980s.
“A lot of times, I will look at a photo or a painting, I’ll think I’m in it. I want someone to feel a life in the sculpture. And when people look at [a plaque], I want people to recognize a player for his great career.’’
There is an underlying irony in Ellis devoting so much of her professional life to the re-creation of faces. Some 30 years ago, she incurred significant facial paralysis, the consequence of a nerve being severed during ear surgery. And though doctors immediately performed a nerve transplant in hopes of restoring nerve and muscle function, it took years of patience and therapy, said Ellis, for her to regain facial movement and speech.
“One eyelid wouldn’t close for a year,’’ she recalled. “I had to wear a moisture chamber and black patch. Even with the chamber and applying eye drops every 10 minutes, light was such a problem I still had to cover the eye.’’
Her recovery took nearly eight years, until the mid-’90s, which was about the time Wallace International asked her to try her hand at some work for the Hall of Fame. She submitted her first round of sculptures for the Class of ’95, which included Vic Willis, Mike Schmidt, William Hubert, Leon Day, and Richie Ashburn, and she has produced every sculpture for the Hall ever since.
“Because of the way my own face got rewired, with the new nerve put in,’’ mused Ellis one day at her home in suburban Bethel Park, “I learned a lot about facial muscles. I really had to study them myself, you know, to retrain my own face as far as speech or expression.’’
An admitted poor sleeper, Ellis is up by 3 or 4 most mornings and often dashes straight to her home studio to begin her workday, her dog-eared sculptor’s apron and vest pulled over her pajamas.
“I like to get my day started early,’’ she said, “because I’m usually in bed by 9. My day’s going to end earlier than most.”
Her sculptor’s box contains all manner of small-scale tools, including bits of hair combs broken into fragments, old credit cards, and an array of old finely pointed dental tools. That’s right, the look of many of those faces hanging in the hallowed Plaque Gallery came with an assist from anonymous dental hygienists in western Pennsylvania.
Each piece for the Hall, said Ellis, takes her about four days to sculpt, but the process is typically longer because Cooperstown frequently asks for revisions, reviewing her ongoing work from forwarded photographs. She also has some occasional false starts, like this year with Martinez & Co.
“It was cold out and I’d installed new lights in the studio,’’ said Ellis, noting how temperature can alter the pliability of the clay. “After a few days, I scrapped them all and switched to a different clay. I’m thrilled I did. I hated to lose the time, but factors like weather and humidity make a big difference.’’
Ellis took her first steps toward an art career while in fourth grade at the Nativity School in the Pittsburgh suburb of Broughton. The city-based Carnegie Institute chose children from all around Pittsburgh for year-round art classes every Saturday and for two days every week in the summer.
Those classes, which she never missed, ultimately led Ellis to Edinboro University, where in 1979 she earned her undergraduate degree in fine arts, with a major in wood furniture design and construction and a minor in sculpture.
It was the childhood classes, though, that led to her first days in the big leagues, inside a vacant Forbes Field.
“One day during art class, the teacher, Mr. Fitzpatrick, said, ‘We’re taking a field trip today; we’re going to Forbes Field,’ ’’ recalled Ellis. “We went in, lined up boy-girl, boy-girl, with our drawing boards. The park was empty. The assignment was to imagine the game going on and then draw it. That’s a pretty imaginative experiment.’’
Imaginative and long-lasting. Every January, when the new Hall members are announced, Ellis gets back to work on her new subjects, studying their faces, shaping the clay that will be their look for the ages.