Happy birthday Abe: Wilmington businessman reveals limited bronzes of 1956 Lincoln face mask

Wilmington resident and Lincoln enthusiast Clell Hamm has partnered with a Chapel Hill art collector to offer 1,865 bronze sculptures, each entitled The Face of Lincoln, originally created by mid-20th century sculptor Robert Merrell Gage.

The "Face of Lincoln" bronze sculpture, made from the original terracotta face mask by mid-20th century sculptor Robert Gage. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
The “Face of Lincoln” bronze sculpture, made from the original terracotta face mask by mid-20th-century sculptor Robert Merrell Gage. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

WILMINGTON — How local hearing aid specialist Clell Hamm came upon an original terra-cotta face mask of Abraham Lincoln, created in 1956 by renowned sculptor and lifelong Lincoln expert Robert Merrell Gage, is a story that starts at an auction in California more than 25 years ago.

In 1992 Hamm’s friend John Short, a Chapel Hill art collector, discovered the Lincoln mask at an art auction in Pasadena.

“More than 25 years later he comes to me and he says, ‘This mask I have of Abraham Lincoln is spectacular; it’s stunning. It really needs to be cast as a bronze – that’s what the artist meant for it to be. And it’s never been cast. So he said, ‘We should do this.’”


Casting the Face of Lincoln

The two consulted with their attorneys to see if they had the rights to reproduce it. After given the green light, the first set of bronzes were cast in the summer of 2018 by a bronze foundry in Randolph County, which according to Hamm once cast a sculpture of Ronald Regan that now sits in the U.S. Capitol rotunda.

“We spent the last year-and-a-half bringing this to fruition, and this is when we’re finally going public,” Hamm said on Tuesday – what would’ve been Lincoln’s 210th birthday.

Now the two men plan to sell 1,865 sculptures, each numbered and entitled The Face of Lincoln, at a starting price of $8,500.

The original terra-cotta mask that Chapel Hill art collector John Short found at an art auction in California in 1992. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy John Short)
The original terra-cotta mask that Chapel Hill art collector John Short found at an art auction in California in 1992. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy John Short)

Hamm said he expects buyers of the work to be Lincoln enthusiasts, students of history, fine art collectors, and galleries and art museums. Next week Hamm and Short will travel to Topeka, Kansas, to unveil a sculpture at the Mulvane Art Museum at Washburn University, where Gage once studied.

“This was made in 1956 and has since only been in private hands. It’s almost like we found a masterpiece,” Hamm said. “That’s what we’re so excited about to share with the world.”

“Encountering this Lincoln mask stirred my emotions the first moment I saw it, and even though I had kept it in my home for 25 years, in 2017 I knew I had to share the inspired work with others,” Short said. “It is a demonstration of Gage’s total familiarity with Abraham Lincoln’s likeness and his very special life. Gage saw Lincoln as a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief. That he created this terra-cotta with its poignant expression indicates his credo that art should speak to the heart of the viewer.” 

The life of Robert Merrell Gage

Gage was born in Topeka in 1892. As a young man he was classically trained in sculpture work at the Beaux-Arts Institute in New York City, and later under the tutelage of Robert Henri, the father of the Ashcan School art movement.

He then apprenticed with Gutzon Borglum, who later created Mount Rushmore. Hamm said certain evidence suggests that Gage was involved in designing the models for Lincoln on the famous monument.

Gage’s first commissioned work was The Seated Abraham Lincoln in 1915, which Hamm said still sits at the Kansas State Capitol. In the early 1920s, he moved to Los Angeles where he became a professor of art sculpture at the University of Southern California.

In L.A. he was commissioned for the Electric Fountain in Beverly Hills, the decorative sculpture on the Edison Building, the facade on the L.A. Times building, and the head of Abraham Lincoln on Grand Avenue, according to Hamm.

But it was a movie called “The Face of Lincoln,” which showed Gage modeling a bust of Lincoln as he narrates Lincoln’s life, that particularly enthralled Hamm. The movie won an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film in 1956 — the same year that the terra-cotta was made, now owned by Hamm and Short.

“When you see the movie, you understand why Gage has such mastery of Lincoln’s face because he studied the life mask that Chicago sculptor Leonard Volk did in 1860,” Hamm said.

According to Hamm, Volk’s mask is one of only two masks plastered onto Lincoln himself, and now sits in the Smithsonian.

What Gage did as an artist — he formed it from memory to scale,” Hamm said, capturing the “somber weight that he carried” in his lifetime. “Gage referred to Lincoln as a man of sorrow.”

How to view it, buy it

Hamm said it was this piece of art that led him and Short to form the N.C. Gallery of Fine Art, which for now is only an online gallery where you can view and buy The Face of Lincoln.

Those interested can go to Hamm’s office at the Hamm Hearing Aid Center (1608 Wellington Avenue), where a bronze sculpture sits in the lobby. Or you can view the virtual gallery and make orders at ncgfa.com.

Each sculpture is custom-made and hand-fired by a bronze artisan at Carolina Bronze Sculpture about 20 miles south of Greensboro. Hamm said to expect 60 to 90 days for delivery.

“Each will be slightly different and unique because of the virtue of each being custom made. But we’ve decided on a traditional medium-brown with some dark shading to emphasize the features.”

He said to pay attention to Lincoln’s asymmetrical face: the right side his “humanitarian side” and the left his “legal side”.


Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com

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