Nijel Binns Sculpted Creative Encounters with
Jackie Chan, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder
She’s the only cornrow-wearing Black woman in the world who stands 16-feet-tall and embodies aesthetic attributes of Asian, African, Native American and European people. She’s part mythical goddess, part urban princess whose presence in the south-central district of Watts was intended as a symbol to urge community healing after the infamous Los Angeles riots of 1992. Every enduring gesture of The Mother of Humanity™, as she’s called by her creator Nijel Binns, offers thoughtful symbolism: She holds “a feather of peace found not only in Native American culture but it was used by the Egyptian goddess Maat,” shared Binns, “her left breast is concealed while the other is exposed, not for pornographic nature […] in the Amazon women warriors used bow and arrows and amputated their left breast to make it easier to draw their bow—the breast is symbolic of the source of mineral resources for all humanity, and her form is modeled on the continent of Africa that is sublimely established in her shape.” This graceful two-ton monument, valued at U$200,000, would be followed by six reproductions to be placed in Africa, Australia, Brazil, China, India and Spain if this portrait sculptor’s vision is ever realized.
For Binns, The Mother of Humanity™ is a testimony that the art of figurative sculpting isn’t confined to creating portrayals of living or deceased heroes. Binns, a native of Battersea, England, spent four years in Mandeville, Jamaica before migrating to Newark, New Jersey in 1963. “My first exposure to sculpting was at St Benedict’s Preparatory [in 1971], I fashioned a hand flashing a peace sign that I finished in antique gold.” Being highlighted for his talent in a Newark newspaper inspired Binns to explore his artistic ability. But his first professional sculpture wasn’t executed until 1990.
“I’m an anomaly in many ways: I’m self-taught as a sculptor and as a writer,” shared Binns, who tutored himself in ancient Egyptian history, Greek sculpture and the Renaissance period. “I did one semester at Montclair State College in New Jersey, I learned to draw lines and squiggly circles and felt that was not for me.” Binns traded college for four years in the U.S. Air Force, with the intent of entering the film industry. “I became a stuntman in Jackie Chan’s first American film The Big Brawl. Being a stuntman and fight coordinator was his priority until he decided to create a 3/4 life-size bust of Michael Jackson.
“It was clay with a ceramic gold finish,” he recalls, “I gave it as a gift to Joseph Jackson [Michael’s dad].” A photo of that statue and a thank you note from Joseph Jackson that read: “In acknowledgement of the gold statue of Michael that you sculpted for my family, I express sincerest appreciation. Your work is a pleasure to own. I find the statue is beautifully detailed and well crafted. It captures the likeness of Michael very well.” That note was in Binns’ folio during a chance meeting in 1990 with Stan Hilas of The Fitzgerald Hartley Company, who was searching for a sculptor to create a bronze figure of Michael Jackson.
That note and photograph, coupled with being prepared for the opportunity, secured the commission to create the Artist of the Decade Award that was presented to Michael Jackson by CBS/Epic executives Tommy Motolla and Dave Glew. That year, Binns was retained by Motown to create the Maasai Princess, a 18K gold-plated bronze statue valued at $75,000, that was presented to Stevie Wonder on the occasion of his 40th birthday. Among Binns’ other illustrious commissions is a bronze bust of John W. Mack, former president of the LA Urban League, and the first bronze monument of actress Shirley Temple for a daycare center that bears her name at Fox Studios in Century City, California.
From a piece of clay to a silicon mold to a wax form for a ceramic shell in which molten metal is poured, the process of crafting a bronze bust can consume four months and requires painstaking attention to details. Binns scours photographs of his subjects taken from all angles in search of the expression that “captures the soul of the person.” He passes on his ‘love of beauty’ through sculpting classes at his Los Angeles studio.
In spite of his impressive commissions, the creative life for Binns is peppered with struggle and angst. “I manufacture for eternity,” he said, “most people don’t see the value in that. I usually have to initiate projects for people to say, ‘Oh, yeah I need that.’ If there’s a Nate Holden Performing Arts Center there should be a statue of Nate Holden not just a name on a building.” One can say the same for the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial site. Songwriter and music producer Joshua Thompson of Tallest Tree Music attests, “[Nijel’s] a living master who has trained with masters, he’s nearing his peak and is someone the world ought to notice. When you see how people react [with amazement] to the accuracy of his work that impact is what art is supposed to do.”
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An appetite for dining out is integral to life in Los Angeles. It’s pretty common for movie scripts and record deals to get the greenlight over a four-course meal. For restauranteur Brad Johnson, success in the fine dining sector of the food service industry affords prized access to the pulse of Hollywood.
Johnson, a native New Yorker, migrated west in 1989 and opened the Roxbury, an immensely popular restaurant and dance club that was immortalized in the movie “A Night at the Roxbury.” His follow-up contributions to LA’s nightlife, Georgia (co-owned by Denzel Washington) then The Sunset Room (both now closed), helped spark the revival of the Hollywood business district. These days his passion for dining is invested in Downtown Los Angeles where he manages an impressive net income turnaround for Windows restaurant, which is part of Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson’s portfolio.
When Johnson entertains visitors he avoids the beaten-track. “I’ve taken friends to classes at Power Yoga, to dine along the Malibu coast, and to The Ivy or the Newsroom where you might find a fair number of [film] industry networkers.” “I love exploring Chinatown and The Farmer’s Market on Main St. in Santa Monica on Sundays,” adds Johnson, who frequents the nine-mile bike path that starts in Manhattan Beach and snakes along the vibrant Venice Beach boardwalk. Major boxing events and the uninhibited nightlife in Las Vegas provide an alternative weekend experience for Johnson who manages V Bar at The Venetian resort. “Jobs and people are always turning over so there’s a constant search for what the next thing is,” he says, “since people [in LA] define themselves by where they go and who they’re sitting next to it’s important to know what place that is at any given time.”
Restaurant sales in California in 2005 tipped the $50 billion mark, in 2004 visitors to LA spent $12 billion, and LA ports handled $235 billion in trading activity. “Obviously the entertainment industry is the hub of the wheel,” shares Johnson, “as for emerging opportunities, LA’s gone through its cycle there are a lot of Downtown developments going up [and fueling the construction industry], but we’re at the tail end of that boom.” The Staples Center, Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, and Los Angeles Music Center have principal roles in casting Downtown as a hip destination for sports and performing arts attractions. The 2007 arrival of LA Live, a sports and nightlife venue that houses the Grammy Museum, an ESPN studio, bars and bistros, should confirm LA’s new ‘It’ address.
“LA’s an easy place to live though it’s getting more expensive and congested,” admits Johnson, “it’s still a forward thinking city. If you’re not in New York the only other place to be is Los Angeles.” Learn more, visit the official site of the LA Convention and Visitors Bureau.
STAY: The Sunset Tower Hotel “Is low-key, a little more exclusive and a bit more expensive,” offers Johnson. Its art deco architecture hints at the elegance of its suites that offer views of Beverly Hills and Hollywood Hills.
DINE: The unobstructed 360-degree penthouse view from Windows is as luscious as the Petit Filet with Australian Lobster Tail or Bone in Rib Eye, both specialties of this steak house and martini bar situated near Staples Center.
CHILL: After lunch Johnson designs a relaxing afternoon in West Hollywood by perusing “spiritual, meditation and New Age releases” at Bodhi Tree Bookstore before drifting to Elixr for a mind-clearing herbal tonic. Here a tranquil garden offers “a place to sit and read.”
ENJOY: Downtown’s cultural jewel, Walt Disney Concert Hall, offers self-guided audio tours of this spectacular structure and year-round performances by touring choirs and orchestras. Catch a free exhibit at California African American Museum, which preserves the legacy of African American culture in the western states.
© SEAN DRAKES
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