Stanley Wanlass has had a lifelong fascination with cars. He carved them in soap as a kid in Lehi. He built and raced hot rods on the Salt Flats as a teenager in the '50s. At 47, he's been called "the ranking sculptor of the automobile."
"The automobile is the only new, significant art form of the 20th century," he insists. "Everything else has been done before - and done and done and done. Nothing has had an impact on this century like the automobile has."And few artists have had an impact on the world of automobile sculpture like Wanlass has. His detailed bronzes have won major prizes and appeared on the covers and pages of numerous expensive magazines that cater to car collectors. His recent whimsical sculpture of Santa "Chugging Through the Snow" will appear on the cover of Antique Toy magazine next fall.
Wanlass, a Brigham Young University graduate who wisely changed his major from pre-med to art after walking away with first-place and best-of-show awards in both painting and sculpture, wrote his master's thesis about hood ornaments and emblem design. It was the beginning of what has become an enduring interest in the automobile as art.
After teaching at the European Art Academy and later at the University of Grenoble, Wanlass and his wife Joy settled in Astoria, Ore. Their three-story house overlooking the mouth of the Columbia River is his largest sculpture to date. After 16 years there ("I had to teach to support my habit"), Wanlass has moved his family and studio to a home against the foothills in Sandy. His art is no longer a part-time hobby, but a full-time career.
"I've always thought the ideal would be to have someone appreciate my work enough that I could make a living at it," he said. They do, and he does.
Wanlass' works are not staid replicas of early automobiles, but statements about the importance of the car and people's relationships to it. "For thousands of years, people relied on horse and wagon. Then here came this contraption that revolutionized the world. It gave people freedom and made the world smaller."
But not entirely easily. "One Horsepower" depicts a horse pulling an '06 auto out of the mud while the chagrined family in it waits impatiently.
"Passing of the Horse," a 34-inch-long bronze, dramatizes the changing lifestyles at the turn of the century as gasoline replaced oats as fuel. An anguished cowboy on a horse tries in vain to keep up with an early model auto and hold onto the traditional way of life. Excitement shows on the faces of the passengers in the car, determined to progress with the times.
People are just as important as the cars in his sculptures. "I would never depict a car without a driver or passenger," said Wanlass.
"Without humanization, it's just a piece of machinery. Automobiles are extensions of people. When I drive, the wheels are an extension of me."
Wanlass is less concerned about recreating exact details than in creating the spirit of a piece when he works. Hence, spokes look like pinwheels on oval-shaped wheels, giving the illusion of speed. "I change whatever I need to in order to establish a symbol," he explained.
One such symbolic sculpture is "First Love," depicting a teenage Wanlass and his girlfriend in a '32 Ford convertible. Details include red- and white-striped Coke straws and the fuzzy, oversized dice that dangled from rearview mirrors in the '50s.
So well did he capture the spirit of "The Great Race" with his "New York to Paris, '08," that the bronze won the grand prize at the Meadowbrook Concours d'Elegance Automotive Art Show in 1983. The limited edition of 30 sold out at $40,000 apiece.
His "Spirit of Mercedes," featuring Carl Benz in an 1886 model, a companion seated at his side, and a gold-plated sculpture of the driver's 10-year-old daughter holding a torch out over the single front wheel, made the rounds of major museums in Washington, D.C., Paris, London, and New York to celebrate the car's 100th anniversary in 1986.
Wanlass, whose boyish good looks are enhanced by a ready sense of humor, admitted at the time that the popularity of his "Mercedes" was unexpected. "I thought you had to be dead to get something in the Louvre," he quipped. "I'm hiring a taster as a precaution!"
Wanlass' affable nature spills over into his work - and into his play. When he's on the road three or four months of the year showing and selling his works, he advertises the show on the side of a 1937 Rolls-Royce van. He and wife Joy don white scarves and goggles to add to the fun.
And he still gets a thrill out of racing. He plans to build a large garage on his property to house the 22 vintage race cars he owns and races.
The large Tudor-style home overlooking the southern end of Salt Lake Valley is headquarters now for his work and family - son Lincoln, 13; daughter Amber, 10; and 7-year-old triplets Britton, Brandy, and Brandon. Much of the family's furniture - massive wooden pieces that give the remodeled home the look and feel of a medieval castle - have been moved to Sandy. Other pieces will remain at the Oregon home, where Wanlass will maintain part of his business.
The sculptor, who got away from cars temporarily for a heroic-sized Lewis and Clark monument in a national park in Oregon, is currently working on two more monuments for the cities of Seaside, Ore., and Long Beach, Wash. His immediate proj-ect, "The Seaman," to be placed at the mouth of the Columbia River, pays tribute to those lost at sea. The monument, facing the ocean, will be covered by 2 feet of water at the base at low tide and to the man's elbows at high tide.
Wanlass plans to divide time between the Utah and Oregon studios, using foundries near both to produce his bronzes. In Sandy, he's only minutes from Wasatch Bronze Works in Lehi - and his parents, Glen and Alta. He's delighted to have his children near their grandparents.
Dozens of automobile sculptures in various phases of creation sit atop and among still-to-be-unpacked boxes in Wanlass' new studio and office. A narrow wooden stairway spirals to the library above.
Thousands of volumes on vintage cars - and anything associated with cars - line the walls of the octagonal turret. Wanlass loves doing the historical research almost as much as he enjoys creating a new sculpture. In fact, he's collaborating on a book of early post cards of automobiles.
Wanlass has more than enough projects to fill 24 hours - and then some. Joy also puts in around 60 hours a week for the business, including bookkeeping, painting, and wax work. Stan is up at 8 and works until 2 or 3 a.m. on his various proj
-ects. "I like to work and be with my family," he said. "But I don't feel I have enough time now to do what I want to do."
One thing is certain; Wanlass will continue to sculpt and sell - not just bronze automobiles, but the idea of man surmounting a challenge.
"Early automobiles had an honest stylization and integrity about them.
They were purely function and form," he said. "Now, most cars look alike because they're engineered for efficiency, rather than style.
"Anything we can do to keep our individuality alive is important."