- Associated Press - Saturday, March 29, 2014

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - You can’t call Joe Menna one-dimensional.

As a renowned sculptor, the South Jersey-raised University of the Arts grad is not only a 3-D kind of guy, he’s also a triple threat.

As a staff artist at the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, he’s immortalized the likes of Washington, Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt on U.S. dollar coins.

On his own time, he’s crafted a second career - and national reputation - digitally sculpting action figures and collectible statues of famous fantasy characters, from Batman to Voldemort to Star Wars’ Darth Maul turned part cyborg spider. Menna’s been using virtual chisels for more than a decade, relying on 3-D printing long before it became a buzzword. He’s done demos of digital sculpting at national conventions, like San Diego’s Comic Con two years ago for DC Collectibles.

“I’m a lifelong card-carrying comics geek,” said Menna, 44, who has tattoos that pay homage to Dr. Who, Silver Surfer and Star Wars.

Now he’s helping make history, too. A campaign in India to build the world’s largest statue commissioned him to create a design. His likeness of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who led hundreds of princely states to form the modern nation, is the working model for a 597-foot-tall colossus, part of a proposed $400 million complex in Gujarat, on the northwest coast of India. This Statue of Unity would be about twice height of the Statue of Liberty, taller than Philadelphia City Hall, including William Penn, and higher even than the Crazy Horse slowly being carved out of a mountain in South Dakota.

And the Asian statue’s height doesn’t even count its 60-foot-high base. Count that and the monument would be about two-thirds as tall as the Eiffel Tower.

You’ll see Menna’s design front and center on the website for the project. Whether it’s the final vision remains to be seen. With the usual set of obstacles, from lawsuits to political objections to a need for massive donations, the project is far from written in stone - or, in this case, bronze-covered concrete-on-steel.

Coins and statues can foster national pride, but Menna’s fantasy-world figures strike even more chords in the public imagination, firing up a full spectrum of reactions. You can’t help but cringe at the creepiness of Joker, feel fear in the presence of Voldemort, be moved by the sultry slinkiness of Catwoman, and marvel at how such things can be created in a computer.

Paradoxically, fantasy has long been fueled by realism - witness the scars, the veins, the bulging muscles, the textures of textiles of Menna’s creations. The more vivid, the more beautiful the dream, the scarier the nightmare.

So it’s not surprising to hear Menna say his enthusiasm for art grew from his love of comic books, sci-fi and fantasy while growing up in Blackwood, Camden County, where he graduated from Highland Regional High School.

After graduating from Philadelphia’s University of the Arts in 1992, he got his master’s at the New York Academy of Art in 1994.

Practice assignments from Valiant Comics made him think he had a shot at landing a penciling, or primary illustration, gig. But he decided to stick with sculpture, and went to study at Russia’s prestigious Steiglitz academy, where students would shovel clay out of a dump truck and fill cast-iron tubs in classrooms.

Menna says that, for realism, the St. Petersburg school “was better than anything in the West,” where abstract art was more in favor. He took his art career very seriously, striving to become a classical fine artist, another Michaelangelo, rather than a commercial one.

“You put Shakespeare in your crosshairs, and give it a shot,” he said.

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