Sculptor Mike Leavitt Opens Up On Inspiration,
Action Figures & Latching Onto Positivity
FCTRY’s Zoe Cronin talked with Mike Leavitt, the designer of Real Life Action Figures, about finding “divine inspiration” during a moment of political upheaval.
Zoe Cronin: So, Jason told me a little bit about the story of how you created the Pope Francis Action Figure. I heard that the idea actually emerged out of negative feelings for Trump. Could you tell me a little bit more about that?
Mike Leavitt: It was towards the end of 2016, maybe January 2017, when that big bummer from the election started to kind of settle down a bit, although I think we were all sort of traumatized still. I was definitely desperate for something positive to do, something that I could latch onto. I wasn’t having any great ideas about it; I was kind of like, “ah maybe I can get politically active, give money to charities” and that was all good, but it was around that time in January 2017 that the Pope came out with a paper on the environment, and suddenly it kind of clicked like ok, this is awesome, this is a good person. My first thought was, we should do a Pope Francis action figure — and I think I texted Jason within the hour and he immediately texted back. All I said was something like, “the pope?” with a question mark, no major proposition, just like ‘hey what do you think of this’ and he said “I was just thinking the same thing”. He and I have sort of had that give-and-take in the past, where we won’t talk for weeks and months and then suddenly we’ll have the same idea at the same time. So it just seemed like it had to be done.
ZC: Sounds like it was divine intervention.
ML: (laughing) I think so, I think so. I think if you reach down into our non-Christian souls, yeah.
ZC: With Pope Francis, people probably don’t think of the Pope as someone who is superhero-like, but you talked about his statements on the environment and things like that. What is it about him that you think makes him a good action figure?
ML: Well, for one he’s really cute. He’s just kind of this adorable character. I think that was something we were missing from the last Pope and maybe the guy before, not just cuteness but also this warm glow. He’s someone who just has that hue. I think that was the feeling I got from the Dalai Lama and other spiritual leaders like that, and I think maybe that was something we were all wanting from a Pope-like figure that we hadn’t had before. It’s just this positive feeling that comes from him. I’ve never practiced Christianity at all in my life, but I remember growing up liking Pope John Paul II in the 80s and just thinking, ‘he seems nice’. Then I guess as an adult you get cynical and bitter, and somehow this guy Pope Francis tapped into that same nice feeling. I don’t know if that’s a superhero quality, but it definitely is a quality to symbolize as an icon.
ZC: I think, in 2018, just being nice probably does make you a superhero.
ML: (laughing) I guess that is what it comes down to. Just be nice and everyone will love you.
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ZC: Absolutely. So, up until this point, the action figures you’ve created with us at FCTRY have all been political figures, particularly US political figures. Where do you think Pope Francis fits into that group?
ML: Well politically, the Pope always influences US politics. It’s always been a direct relationship there, on a larger scale. And that’s the way I feel. So much of the US is Christian or Catholic, and many US citizens are looking to the Pope as a leader. And I don’t know if you could call that a political leader, but I think he fills some of that role. As far as fitting in with the rest of our figures, it feels like a natural transition out of politics, because of the way Pope Francis has kind of meddled in politics — and I mean that in a good way — he’s that kind of guy, coming from South America and being politically active. So as far as Popes go he’s kind of a political guy. And Jason and I, as we’ve moved forward, we’ve wanted to get out of politics, knowing we’ll keep doing that, but wanting to branch out. It felt like this guy in particular was a nice step in that direction.
ZC: Definitely. So I know it’s probably a long process getting an idea to become an actual sculpture or an actual product, but could you break down for me the creative process you go through when you create these action figures?
ML: Yeah, so the first step was Jason and I saying ‘let’s do this’. Then I sit down and try to do a really nice, refined drawing. That really helps the design process. Then Jason and Alyssa and I and anyone else at FCTRY will look over the drawing and give general notes about the outfit, pose, and anything else. Then from the drawing it’s pretty much straight into sculpting. I do a lot of measurements and proportions from the drawing; now I even print the drawing to the same exact size that the figure will be sculpted at, so sometimes I don’t even have to make measurements. Then I’ll build a little armature to hold the clay, it’s pretty simple but it’s a steel wire base.
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And then as I’m sculpting, the more we’ve done this, the more back-and-forth we do while I’m sculpting. So I’m taking pictures and sending them back to FCTRY and getting notes, and we move forward from there. But the sculpting process that takes up the bulk of the time is pretty intense; I have to really sit down and channel these characters. I’m printing out a lot of photos, doing a lot of reading, and trying to capture their essence and figure out what really moves them. A lot of times you don’t see it at first glance, but I try to get that in the subtleties, like how they hold their face or hands, or how their smile relaxes on their cheekbones, just little tiny things like that. It’s an intuitive process that I’m going through while I’m sculpting to get all that down.
ZC: It’s a big job to condense all that down to six inches!
ML: Yeah, and it is nice to work bigger so I can get more detail, but when something is that tiny and miniature, it’s more important for me to make the caricature simpler. I don’t have the luxury of doing a whole bunch of detail in an eye, so I just have to make it a little bit cartoony, and that actually demands that I capture their essence even better. It has to be a really simple snapshot.
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ZC: That’s surprisingly very poetic. So, what is your biggest dream that people will get out of these figures? Do you have any thing that you hope people will ultimately gain from them?
ML: To be perfectly honest, I would love to see the Pope action figure being sold in the Vatican gift shop. That would be super cool. I think it would be very cool if a Catholic person or family who did a pilgrimage to the Vatican to go see their lifelong hero actually bought one of these things in reverence to him. I think a lot of our figures with FCTRY so far have been a little bit tongue-in-cheek, especially Trump and maybe a little bit Hillary, and I think there are a lot of Bernie lovers, but there’s still some irony that we’re playing with, and I love that. I’m definitely into satire. But I think this one in particular would be interesting for me to see — if people who do really love him, and there are a lot around the world — if they saw the figure in the same way.
ZC: Definitely. And as for the larger group, when you started making these political action figures, was there any major dream you had for them at the beginning?
ML: Yeah, it’s been a long time for me. I’ve been sculpting figures like one-offs and sculptures since 2003, so it’s been 15 years. And it’s only been in the last maybe 5 years with FCTRY. I guess my original inspiration 15 years ago has finally come to fruition, because when I first started sculpting them it was kind of a joke. I was like, ‘yeah, it would be funny if I made action figures out of famous artists’, and that went great. The one-offs I was able to sell in art galleries, and that felt really good as a sort of parody on art culture. So that I could really sink my teeth into, and I did for a long time.
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But when I first started the action figures, it wasn’t just about making fun of consumer culture and toys, it was also because I used to love these things! As a kid I collected hundreds of them! And the idea that I could actually make money making them is a dream come true. And now in my adult art career, going back to that original inspiration is fantastic. And especially with Jason being a like-minded person, the two of us going back and forth and sharing a similar vision, he definitely wants to respect whatever I want to do. And that’s another layer of beauty — not only do I get to work with a toy company that’s helping my career, it’s also people who I love, and we can meander forward not necessarily knowing what we’re going to do next, but eventually finding something that vibrates really well.
ZC: Wow, I honestly wasn’t expecting this conversation to be so touching! You kind of stole my next question away from me — what is it about action figures in particular that is most impactful as a product? Because we could be making political stuffed animals, or we could just be selling sculptures, but what do you think it is about an action figure that makes these characters more interesting for you?
ML: Well one thing is that it’s figurative sculpture; it’s somewhat realistic and I really love that. That to me carries a lot of art history to it, because I’m still studying old masters like Michelangelo and Renaissance sculptors and all that, which I really love. I also love the fact that, with action figures, art history and figurative sculpture gets shrunk down to such a tiny scale so that it fits in your pocket. When I was a kid that was what made those things awesome. I could carry them out of my house and have like 5 in my pocket, and then wherever I went I could have them around and be able to play with them. And I guess nowadays for collectors who are adults that’s nice because pragmatically you have more room to display them or store them. And the other thing that we’ve landed on through the last few figures we’ve been doing, especially with Liz Warren and Hillary, it’s become really interesting to be doing action figures of women in particular in the context of dolls. We got into this when we were marketing Hillary. It was really interesting and powerful because when I was growing up with action figures, the whole joke was that “oh, you’re just playing with dolls”. And we’d always be really defensive and angry and say, “they’re not dolls, they’re action figures, don’t call them that!”. And that comes back into play because a doll has this kind of sexist body type that it’s supposed to be, but as soon as you try to make those proportions somewhat realistic, you call it an action figure.
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ZC: That’s really interesting. One last kind of silly question, and maybe you’ve already done this in your life before, but if you could make an action figure out of anybody, who would it be?
ML: That’s not silly at all! There are so many of them, that’s tough. Of anybody?
ZC: I’ll give you permission to list a few.
ML: (laughing) Well, I haven’t made one of myself in a long time. It’s probably overdue to make another one of myself. My dad passed away last year, and I did one of him a few years ago, but I should do another one of him. It feels really nice to kind of memorialize people, and I’ve done this for other people sometimes as a commission, to make one of someone who’s passed away. So I think more of that. I’ve done a lot of famous people and celebrities, plenty of those. So I think it might be really nice to do more of those memorial-type figures. ●
The Pope Francis Action Figure is available now on FCTRY.com.