Feats of Clay

Mark Fondersmith is helping to shape legal history

By: Marisa M. Kashino

Mark Fondersmith isn’t a typical Washington insider. The father of two lives with his family in Frederick County and works out of an art studio in his home.

Yet Fondersmith, 58, has access to some of the nation’s most powerful and private figures—US Supreme Court justices. The sculptor has immortalized the justices in clay.

“I want to do important portraits of people who are making an important contribution to American life,” he says.

Fondersmith has created busts of former justices William Brennan, Byron White, Sandra Day O’Connor, and William Rehnquist. He’s working on sculptures of several sitting justices, though he declines to name them. His discretion is part of what keeps him in the high court’s good graces.

Growing up in Towson, Maryland, Fondersmith watched his father paint watercolors and decided he also would become an artist. For years, he worked as an art director at magazines and newspapers, sculpting on the side. Now he’s focusing on his art.

Fondersmith got his bachelor of fine arts at Syracuse University and studied in London and Florence in the 1970s. In 1992, he began to carve out his niche at the Supreme Court.

Brennan, whom Fondersmith admired, had retired two years earlier. He wrote Brennan a letter asking if he’d pose. “He wrote me a charming letter back and said yes,” says Fondersmith.

Making a bust takes several months. Fondersmith photographs his subject, then meets with that person three or four times as he works. He doesn’t do it for the money—Congress pays only for official busts of chief justices. Fondersmith gets paid for sculptures of associate justices if someone buys them.

The sculptor remembers Brennan—who died in 1997—as so friendly that “I got the feeling that if you dropped him by helicopter into Yankee Stadium, by the seventh inning he would know everyone.” Fondersmith’s goal was to capture that warmth.

Evidently, he succeeded—he thinks his busts of Brennan and White persuaded Rehnquist to sit for him.

Fondersmith recalls showing the chief justice an early version: “Rehnquist’s first comment was ‘You’ve given me too much hair.’ Now, there’s an honest man.”