Look: Son to ensure that late father’s Naismith sculpture will be completed

Lawrence resident Kim Tefft uses a chisel to remove air bubbles from the casting process on the head and shoulders portion of a statue of James Naismith that will be installed outside of the DeBruce Center, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2015 at his southeast Lawrence studio.

In his father’s studio near the southeast edge of Lawrence, Kim Tefft hunches over a bronze bust of Dr. James Naismith, chiseling away air bubbles and smoothing out other blemishes inherited from the casting process.

The work won’t go down in any basketball box score as an assist, but make no mistake, it is an assist — and likely one that will be admired by KU basketball fans for decades to come.

Tefft’s work on the Naismith sculpture — it will be a little more than a life-sized homage to the inventor of basketball when completed — is more than just a job for Tefft. It is a chance to finish the work that was started by his late father, renowned Lawrence sculptor and Kansas University professor Elden Tefft, who died on Feb. 17.

Tefft says that his father conceived the idea for the Naismith sculpture around 2001 or 2002 and began working on it in earnest around 2004. A quick look at the Teffts’ workshop shows the idea was never very far from the sculptor’s mind.

Various likenesses and pieces of Naismith iconography are scattered around the room, including a wall of 17 reference photographs of Naismith, a full-size clay model toward the entryway and two other dust-covered small-scale models sitting side-by-side high on a shelf overlooking everything.

“He was one that would always start a project often times without necessarily having a buyer,” said Tefft of his father. “It was just a good idea and he wanted to do it. And he always imagined that KU would be one of the first places to get the Naismith statue.”

Although it will not be the first home for Tefft’s Naismith statue with two currently existing in both Almonte, Canada, Naismith’s birth place, and Springfield College in Springfield, Mass., where Naismith invented the game, KU will be the final home of the sculpture completing what Kim Tefft calls an “international tri-memorial” of Naismith.

The sculpture itself features the game’s inventor sitting back straight, sharply dressed wearing his signature round-framed glasses with legs straddling a peach basket and a basketball in his right hand. The piece, which is being funded by KU Endowment, is planned for display in the lawn in front of the DeBruce Center, as confirmed by Jim Marchiony of Kansas Athletics. The DeBruce Center is currently under construction to house Naismith’s official “rules of basket ball,” the founding document of the game.

“That building is being designed as a destination point, so there will be a lot of people that will come to see that, not just at basketball game time,” Tefft said. “My father wanted a piece that would carry itself in an outdoor environment. At the same time he wanted something intimate enough that people could interact with it, sit beside it and get their pictures taken with it. I think it will have a strong draw that way.”

As far as the statue’s importance to his father, who also created the Moses sculpture, which kneels outside of Smith Hall and the Academic Jay, which is perched outside of Strong Hall, Tefft offers, “He grew up in a time that was contemporary with Dr. Naismith [and] Phog Allen. KU was always important to my father. It gave him lots of opportunities to research and create. He was always very interested in people’s education. Even doing the statue of Dr. Naismith was about educating people about him, about Naismith.”

Now 59, Kim Tefft scans the bust of Naismith as he turns it on a swivel. Tefft says the remainder of the sculpture will be cast in several different sections, welded together and then subjected to a process of chasing for blending the joints as to appear seamless. He hopes for the statue to be completed by the first of the year.

Friends of the elder Tefft are pleased to see the project continue, and say it is in good hands.

“In recent years, [Kim] had done the majority of the casting because Elden wasn’t physically strong enough,” said Paul Boatwright, who is a frequent visitor to the studio and a retired Topeka orthodontist, sculptor and 40-year friend of Elden Tefft. “And he’s good at it. I’m sure it pleases him to do it.”

As far as finishing the work alone, Tefft says, “It is a pretty absorbing project to be involved with,” but admits that finishing the sculpture for his father is also special. “It probably would be considered his final major piece. It’s something that you feel like you really want to do, you know, and help it happen.

“I’m not the creative sculptor that my father would have been, but I’m a reasonably good studio assistant,” Tefft says with a laugh. “We’ve got pictures of myself in a stroller at a bronze-pouring party. I pretty much have been assisting [my father] all of my life.”

What is ‘Look’?

“Look” is a new monthly feature by Journal-World photographer Nick Krug that looks in depth at topics of interest — particularly visual interest — in our community. This is the inaugural feature.