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Bear Sculptures

Creating Grizzly Bear Sculptures

In restoring elements of the Palisades buildings to their original 1935 appearance, the Balboa Park Committee of 100 has been faced with the challenge of creating permanent building features in the place where only temporary pieces had stood before. 

To bring back the two grizzly bear statues that stood on the rooftop corners of the one-time California State Building (now the Automotive Museum), sculptor Mike Matson and his son, Kevin, had to start with only a few grainy photos. The original bears, like party piñatas, had long since disappeared.

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Photo --> Drawing --> Maquette 

Drawings must use the dimensions derived from the available photos. Then, the small model (maquette) applies three dimensions to the design. Dimensions for the bears were derived from those of the building.

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Loyalty to historic precedent

The first clay model, about a foot long, was closer to an actual grizzly than the photos showed. “We needed a streamlined 1935 bear,” Mike says, laughing at the pot-bellied look of the first clay model. Added Kevin, “loyalty to historic precedent is the main design criterion in a restoration project. The aesthetics aren’t our decision.”

The second clay model was a better match for the old photos. With the project team’s approval, this model was dubbed the maquette – the original sculpture in miniature.

Below: Kevin Matson with his father, Mike. They own Bellagio Precast in San Diego.

(Cover Photo) Kevin and Mike Matson in their studio with a grizzly. Photo Roy deVries.   (

Maquette --> full-size sculpture

Scaling it up to full size was the next step, to be followed by the creation of a silicone rubber mold of the full-sized creation. From the large mold, two finished grizzly statues would be cast and colored using permanent materials.

Each of these steps involved weeks of work.

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Step by Step...

To scale up to full size, the maquette was banded with black stripes, allowing for cross-section measurements and upscaling of the model, section by section. 

 Thick plywood was attached to a central spine to establish the varying dimensions of the large object. “We made the wood framework one inch smaller all around than what we needed in the finished piece,” Mike explains. “That leaves one inch to create the skin and surface.”

To create a surface that will eventually look like a bear, the wooden pieces are cladded with cloth or paper and fixed in place to resemble a muscled body. On this inner skin, sculptural clay is applied and then combed and shaped to form paws, claws, jaws, ears, eyes and fur. (The specific materials used for these steps are a trade secret for these chefs of sculpture.) 

At the end of the process, deep grooves are incised on the whole sculpture to show the coarse fur. “The sun is going to show those grooves beautifully and from the viewing distance it really will look like fur,” says Mike with a smile. 

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Sculpture --> Mold-making

The whole surface of the bear sculpture is sealed so that it will not flake or chip while being molded.  

The full-size bear appears to smile in surprise when visitors come to the Matson studio. It’s the original, soon to be molded by a silicone rubber wrap.

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