When, after years of work, an 800-pound, life-size bronze elk graces the roundabout that marks Payson's northern entrance, Jim (J.R.) Keller will be one happy man.
A bronze artist, Keller will help turn a visitor's welcome into Payson from a round patch of dirt and weeds into a dignified oasis of pseudo-natural eye candy.
The elk is a natural choice, he said. "It is kind of our Payson symbol."
The roundabout beautifying project is called the Payson Gateway Project, and they're raising money with raffles, golf tournaments and an elk one could fit into his home -- two sizes available --o pay for landscaping -- pine trees and boulders -- and the $60,000 elk for the roundabout.
"I'm a little prejudiced," he said. "But I think its going to look great."
Eventually, Keller said a granite or sandstone sign reading, "Welcome to Payson," on one side and, "Welcome to Rim Country" on the other, would be nice.
"That's probably like phase three."
Since timelines and money are intrinsically linked, Keller isn't sure when the $60,000 elk will be cast. A Sept. 27 golf tournament fund-raiser should raise enough more money to start landscaping in November, Keller said.
It starts with clay. Keller molds his sculpture with a special kind of gray clay that doesn't harden -- even after 30 years.
A foundry -- Keller's is in Tempe -- prepares the sculpture before pouring the bronze. They make a latex mold of the sculpture, then pour wax into the mold.
At this point, Keller gets a phone call for a wax check. "Once I approve the wax, it's ready for metal."
Before the metal, the foundry artists create a porcelain-type mold over the wax. They heat the figure at 1700 or 1800 degrees so the wax melts, leaving room for the bronze.
A wax check, a metal check, and vigilance during the painting process present the only opportunities Keller has for control after he drops his piece off at the foundry.
This can be scary. "It has become your baby," Keller said. He sometimes works on pieces in his basement for eight to 10 hours a day.
(Thankfully his wife, Connie, is a quilter and understands the detail-oriented obsession that accompanies great art.)
Acid slathered on bronze sculptures gives it color. The process is irreversible and Keller stays present for its entirety.
The whole process is labor-intensive, time-intensive, and rather expensive. Skyrocketing commodities costs include copper, which is present in bronze ingots.
Keller said a bronze sculpture that would have cost $1,900 three years ago has inflated today to anywhere from $2,500 to $2,800.
"It's an expensive art form and not many people are doing it anymore," he said.
Such are the casualties of a faltering economy. Keller has displayed his work at Artists of the Rim Gallery, but will pull it at the end of August.
He said he wants to allow gallery space for more accessibly-priced art, works more likely to sell.
"It's been tough for higher--end retail pieces right now."
A drowsy economy has affected galleries around the state, some even forced to close, Keller said.
But this cycle too shall come to a close, Keller said. And in the meantime, he'll take advantage of the extra time and travel.