Sutton Betti has been designing and sculpting for more than 20 years. He is known and sought after for his work including realistic bronze sculptures made with incredible attention to detail. More than 20 of his sculptures have been installed around the country. He specializes in honoring members of the military, historical figures and athletes.
Early in the summer of 2019, McPherson’s Brett Reber representing the Julia J. Mingenback Foundation, contacted Betti and asked if he would be willing to come to McPherson and discuss a project. The local philanthropic organization wanted to commission a qualified artist to design, sculpt, build and install a life-sized monument commemorating the McPherson Globe Refiners basketball team at the newly restored Community Building.
For those who don’t know, McPherson, Kansas is home to the first team in history to send players to the Olympic Games and compete in basketball as a medal sport. And they didn’t just go and play basketball at the Olympic Games. They won.
Led by Coach Gene Johnson, six McPherson Globe Refiners players helped the United States US Olympic Team win the first-ever Olympic Gold in basketball playing against Canada at the 1936 Games in Berlin, Germany. The final score of the game played outdoors in the rain was 19-8. The McPherson Community Building was the Globe Refiners home court!
Today the building has been beautifully and skillfully restored to its original 1930’s style thanks to a voter-approved half-cent sales tax and a generous revitalization contribution from CHS Refinery along with the work of many including GLMV Architecture and Hutton Construction.
Betti travelled to McPherson and met with the Mingenback Foundation Trustees and Mayor Tom Brown in July of 2019 to discuss the project. Two months later in September a contract was signed with the Foundation and Betti began assembling his team.
The sculpture ("relief" is the artistic name for it) which Betti designed and sculpted is stunningly detailed. It is also life-sized. Considering The Globe Refiners were called the "Tallest Team in the World", this life-sized monument is not only stately, it is huge.
The monument is made of the curved, bronze relief weighing three-thousand pounds along with the stainless steel cage supporting it, set under an eight-thousand pound, precast, concrete cap and surrounded by another eight-thousand pounds of polished granite. Three large panels on the back tell the story of the team’s history with text and images laser-etched into granite that is three inches thick.
On September 29th, 2020 Betti was in downtown McPherson at the Community Building with five members of his team to finalize installation of the monument.
I met with Betti and asked him what the most challenging part of the year-long project was.
"Everything!" he said with a laugh and a smile.
"The hardest part honestly was the curve and making sure we had the curve correct on the precast, concrete cap, the precast base, and the concrete foundation. We had to make sure those curves matched up perfectly. A lot of math was involved.
"There’s not many curved bronze reliefs. At least we don’t know of any," he said.
To ensure all the pieces would fit together perfectly Betti enlisted the help of many including Tripp Johnson who was working nearby.
"He was in charge of the whole installation," Betti said of Johnson.
"Well…, "Johnson said laughing just a bit in response to Betti’s comment, "It was a team effort," Johnson said.
Betti and Johnson were both quick to point to others whose expertise and generous efforts brought it all together.
Jessica Payne partnered with Betti on the entire project as co-designer and co-contributor from the start. She’s also Betti’s fiancé and was on-site with him to assist during the installation.
Earl Boston of West Point Monument in West Point, Nebraska was enlisted to help gather the team and work as co-designer/collaborator.
"Earl is who I approached first after we had the concept and design," Betti said.
Nick Worden from Fishers, Indiana was brought on to work closely with Betti and created the early digital designs while Betti began work in his studio. Later, Worden produced the detailed architectural plans which would bring everything together.
The project’s team consisted of many talented individuals from five states: Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska. CHS Refinery was instrumental in the completion of the project providing much-needed help and a crane to move the extremely heavy pieces into place.
Hutton Construction provided much assistance including highly-skilled on-site labor including the help of Luke Amend and Eric Duerksen.
"They were great to work with," Johnson said of all those involved with Betti in full agreement.
The project took more than a year to complete.
"The design and sculpting work alone took seven months," he said. "After that it took five more months to complete the foundry work, concrete, granite and stainless steel structure."
"He also likes learning," said Jessica Payne as I spoke with her while Betti was needed elsewhere briefly. "Every time he takes on a project we end up finding out so much. And that is the coolest part for me too," she said.
Betti is an artist who loves to sculpt.
"It’s my passion," he said returning. "I like to consider myself a sculptor-historian. I try to recreate history in art. And I do that through online research, books, photographs as well as talking to people."
He moved to Loveland, Colorado to be near the bronze foundries and artists.
"Loveland is well-known and established for the arts and the sculpture community. Every year they have Sculpture in the Park which is one of or the largest sculpture show in the country, going on close to forty years. It attracts sculptors from all over the world," he said.
Joe Fortenberry was a key player on the team. He is credited with changing the game in several ways including starting one of basketball’s trademark plays – dunking the ball.
"So an interesting story," Betti said, "When I started the clay, I started on the left side of the relief and worked my way towards the right. About two or three days after I finished sculpting Joe Fortenberry his daughter Sally emails me and says, ‘Oh I hear you’re working on a sculpture honoring my Dad.’ So I said, oh yeah?! Come on over! Where do you live? Well," Betti said, "She lives ten minutes from my studio!"
"So she came for a visit and told me a story about her dad," he said.
"She said her Dad’s coach in college told him not to dunk the ball and said it was not elegant and wasn’t part of the game. And so he stopped dunking the ball until he was with the Globe Refiners where he did it one time and Coach Johnson saw him. She said Coach Johnson pulled him aside and her Dad apologized, thinking he was in trouble. But Coach Johnson encouraged him."
Sally Fortenberry Nibbelink now lives in Berthoud, Colorado.
"The entire Fortenberry family would like to extend our deep appreciation to the City of McPherson for honoring the Refiners. Their story is one that was almost lost to history. But, thanks to Rich Hughes, author of ‘Netting Out Basketball’, my cousin, Beth Fortenberry, author of the Amazon best seller, ‘Slam Dunk’, and the City of McPherson, the Refiners are finally getting the recognition they deserve," Nibbelink said.
She also said credit goes "to Brett Whitenack and the McPherson Museum, and to Anne Hassler, "who helped get this ball rolling."
Nibbelink said her cousin Beth Fortenberry has written a screenplay (also called Slam Dunk) which she is marketing in Hollywood.
To achieve a life-sized bronze after the final process Betti had to design and create his sculpture slightly larger than life. That’s because bronze shrinks during the process.
"Basically from the mold making process through the final stage there is shrinkage that happens in bronze sculpture," Betti said. "And we decided after talking to the foundry, one inch taller was the way to make it in clay," he said.
So Betti sculpted his original work one inch taller than it needed it to be so the finished piece of art is life-sized. He used over five-hundred pounds of clay on top of figures he carved from foam to complete the sculpture. Then he made a mold.
"We do what’s called a mother mold. We use rubber to capture the details and then a rigid mother mold on the outside. After the mold is taken apart it goes to the foundry where the bronze is cast," he said.
Betti chose Bronze Services of Loveland in Loveland, Colorado. It is a full service, fine art foundry specializing in a process called "lost wax bronze casting" which is one of the oldest known techniques for forming metal dating back thousands of years.
The statue is considered a relief — Betti called it a mix of two and three dimensional work.
"And so basically everything is flattened. It’s not 2-D. And it’s not totally 3-D," he said.
"When I designed it the first thing I asked myself is how much do I want the highest points to be? I decided on eight inches, not too flat and not too high," Betti said.
He showed me while demonstrating.
"So this is the background," he said, putting his hand against the bronze.
"The highest point is the edge of shoulders, the knuckles here, maybe some of the tips of shoes. So, once I established those high points, then I can fit everything within that eight inches.
"It’s kind of a blend of drawing and 3D sculpting," he continued. "It’s a unique art form."
The Mingenback Foundation was established in 1959 by Gene and Mary Mingenback and has provided grants to innumerable charitable causes in McPherson County. The foundation has also emphasized art and community beautification projects through public sculptures, professional lighting of the McPherson County Courthouse and, BPU buildings and building the Wall Park Pavillion.