- Associated Press - Saturday, September 10, 2016

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - He’s been staring at that face. The one with the spacious forehead and generous nose. He’s been looking at that thick neck and those big hands. He’s been studying exactly how the muscles bulge from the sleeves, how the legs are shaped on that 6-5 frame.

He’s pored over more than 400 photos of Peyton Manning. With a helmet on. With a helmet off. With a face mask. Without a face mask. From the side, from the back, from the front. Upside down and right side up.

Ryan Feeney must know every angle of Manning. From his ear

It’s imperative. Because the task he has before him is daunting.

Feeney is sculpting the bronze statue of one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play in the NFL. He is the man charged with creating a nearly 10-foot image of the Indianapolis Colts’ beloved No. 18 that will forever stand outside Lucas Oil Stadium.

And if Manning is known for his relentless perfectionism and attention to detail on the field, Feeney can only imagine the scrutiny the two-time Super Bowl champion will make of a statue of himself.

“The face? If I have to tear the face off and do it five times to get it right, I’ll do it five times,” said Feeney, a 42-year-old Indianapolis Fire Department firefighter and owner of Indy Art Forge. “Because it’s not going to the foundry until it’s absolutely perfect.”

Feeney got a firsthand taste of just how intense this job could be last month. Colts owner Jim Irsay flew Feeney to Nashville, Tennessee, in his private jet to meet with Manning - so the artist could see his subject up close and in the flesh, so the Colts photographer could take those 400 photos of Manning from all the angles Feeney wanted.

Feeney thought he would get to joke with Manning (he had some jokes ready) or maybe shoot the breeze about football. He was completely mistaken.

“Peyton is all business,” said Feeney, a married father of three. “All business.”

At one point, Feeney stood for what seemed like forever as Manning bent down in front of a mirror to adjust a chin strap until it was perfectly straight.

Another time, Manning saw a photograph Feeney had that was a possible pose for the statue.

“The first thing he said was, ‘I’m 29 in that picture right?’” Feeney recalled. “Just from looking at the picture he knew how old he was.”

It was then Feeney realized that his own obsessive attention to detail and focus on accurate proportions would be a major plus as he crafted Manning’s image.

And as he flew back to Indianapolis on the private jet, the excitement of landing the job and meeting a football idol evaporated. Work mode set in and Feeney sat there in awe of the magnitude of the project before him.

If he nails this sculpture of the NFL giant, he thought, a whole world could open up to him.

“This is a huge feather in my cap to expand my horizons,” Feeney said. “I don’t know where it’s going to take me. All I know is I’m going to enjoy the ride.”

When the Colts honored Manning in March, the quarterback said he “would always be a Colt.” Irsay then heaped praise on Manning in a speech that ended with how the team would commemorate their cherished player.

The No. 18 jersey would be retired - and a Manning statue would be installed outside Lucas Oil in 2017.

Calls and applications came rolling in to Colts headquarters, including one from Feeney, saying he’d love to be put on the list of possible sculptors. Nearly two dozen artists from the East Coast to the West Coast wanted the high-profile gig.

“Picking a sculptor was really difficult because there are some very talented artists out there,” said Pete Ward, chief operating officer for the Colts. “It’s a plum project, considering the subject matter.”

Irsay made the decision and it was Feeney, who had already made a name for himself in Indy. He has 15 public pieces of art, including the Fallen Deputy Memorial outside the Marion County Jail and the 450-pound bronze eagle at the Indianapolis 9/11 Memorial. Feeney also created the Peace Dove sculpture at Central Library, which features an 8-foot-tall bird forged from 1,200 destroyed gun, including some seized by the Marion County Sheriff’s Department.

And right now, Feeney is crafting a 6-2 bronze firefighter statue that will be displayed outside the Fire Department union hall on Massachusetts Avenue. Like the Manning piece, the statue is built first in clay, then sent to a foundry for bronzing.

Beyond Feeney’s talent and the high recommendations about him from people the Colts knew, he had one other big advantage, Ward said. He lives and works in Indy.

The Colts wanted to keep this project local, not only to support Indy businesses, but for convenience. Feeney lives 15 minutes from the Colts complex. If he needs to consult someone about the project, he can be there in a short drive. He also expects Irsay and Ward to stop by to check out his progress on the statue, being built at an undisclosed location.

“Everybody is saying, ‘Aren’t you nervous?’ and I’m not really,” Feeney said. “I mean I’m nervous that every Sunday thousands and thousands of people are going to go in front of it. I’m that kind of nervous.”

But he is confident the statue will be going through plenty of sets of eyes before it’s ever sent for final bronzing. And he knows he has what it takes to get this just right. After all, he’s been creating art for more than three decades.

Feeney grew up on the east side of Indy, a boy who knew almost from the beginning that he wanted to be an artist. His first piece was an oil painting at age 7. While other kids were out playing hide-and-seek or riding bikes after school, Feeney and his mom were taking art lessons. His talent was evident.

He went to Shortridge Junior High, part of the art magnet program, then to Cathedral where he expanded his art repertoire to 3-D work. When he graduated, there was no question what he wanted to do with his life: create. He went to Miami of Ohio and got a bachelor of fine arts degree, with a double major in graphic design and sculpture.

After graduating, he worked corporate jobs in art departments and graphic design. He designed furniture and corporate signage. But he soon realized that he really liked working with his hands.

He became a firefighter in 1999, and with a 24 hours on, 48 hours off schedule, it was perfect for creating art. His shop at Indy Art Forge not only makes custom sculptures and furniture out of metal, it does smaller jobs, such as welding tricycles, which help pay the bills.

When people hear that the artist creating the Manning statue also happens to be a firefighter, many are surprised. Feeney said it’s not all that unusual.

“Most firefighters have a second job, cutting grass or landscaping,” he said. “I just happen to have a 2,400-square-foot studio.”

Exactly what the Manning statue will look like, the pose, whether the helmet will be on or off, Feeney doesn’t know yet. It’s still in the design phase.

Feeney has his preferences. He doesn’t think teeth and open mouths look good in bronze, so Manning will likely have his lips together. He hopes Manning is wearing the helmet, but if the Colts want Manning holding the helmet, he will accommodate.

Once the pose is figured out, Feeney will have a photo blown up to 9 or 10 feet tall. He’ll then take a tape measure and start measuring every part of Manning’s body. How long is Manning’s ear on a figure that size? How many inches tall is the No. 18 on the jersey?

The project will be all-consuming, almost a year in the making.

Feeney is not revealing how much the Colts are paying him. He isn’t even sure how many hours it will take him to complete the statue.

“I’ll work until I get it done,” he said.

But he has handed off his other projects at Indy Art Forge to his assistant, Jimmy Story. That way, he can focus on the bronze.

For two months, all Feeney talked about was the Manning statue. While he sketched it and created a small version of it, while he went through his interviews with the Colts.

Then one day, Story arrived late at the studio. He walked in apologizing to Feeney for sleeping in.

“Yeah. Yeah. Yeah,” Feeney said. Story thought he was acting strangely.

“I was like, ‘What man?’” Story said. “And he was like, ‘We got the Peyton.’”

Story screamed.

“This couldn’t have happened to a better guy,” he said. “He’s as down to earth as they come. Not full of himself at all.”

The proof is in the way Feeney pokes fun at himself as he tackles the job. He knows he may not get things perfect the first time. He fully expects to be adding extra clay to make a cheek a little plumper or scraping off some clay to make a finger just the right size.

He said he invites all the input he can get. Because when that statue is unveiled in front of thousands of people next year, only one set of eyes will matter.

The ones in that face Feeney has been staring at.

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Source: The Indianapolis Star, https://indy.st/2ciN089

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Information from: The Indianapolis Star, https://www.indystar.com

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