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Giving shape to history

After a decade of creating Hollywood fantasies, a Milford sculptor is making real-life heroes shine

Sculptor Jeff Buccacio in his Milford studio with some of his ongoing projects, including a model of a statue for the Framingham Fire Department. Sculptor Jeff Buccacio in his Milford studio with some of his ongoing projects, including a model of a statue for the Framingham Fire Department. (Gretchen Ertl for The Boston Globe)
By Kathleen Moore
Globe Correspondent / February 18, 2010

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Milford sculptor Jeff Buccacio is a lucky man. His world, and his work, is full of heroes.

For more than a decade, the Natick native birthed dozens of phantasmal titans for the silver screen, including the robotic doppelganger brought to life by Robin Williams in “Bicentennial Man,’’ Sigourney Weaver’s nemesis in “Alien Resurrection,’’ and several menacing creatures for “Men In Black.’’

Today, he is hard at work for the Framingham Fire Department creating a bronze tribute to the very real heroes who have lost their lives in the line of duty. And another model in his studio depicts a group of modern-day soldiers slogging through a battlefield. The finished bronze will be installed in the North Carolina headquarters of North American Rescue Inc., a manufacturer of emergency equipment, this year.

As an artist, Buccacio does not differentiate. Flesh or fantasy, the subjects are all the product of inspiration - his own, someone else’s, or history itself. His job is to follow that passion to its logical conclusion.

“When I was in Hollywood, I worked with directors who said ‘Go for it. When I see what I want, I’ll know it,’ ’’ said Buccacio, 38. “That inspired me to work harder than ever.’’

His dedication put him in good stead four years ago when Buccacio decided it was time to move back to Massachusetts. He didn’t have a job, and the prospects for continuing his lucrative career in film here were slim. He briefly considered joining his father in the construction trade, and even thought about digging ditches. Then one day he chanced upon a statue of Civil War General William Franklin Draper in Milford, and it hit him: The same skills he had finessed to create statues could be used to repair them.

“The Draper statue was done by one of my all-time heroes, Daniel Chester French. After he finished it, he went to D.C. to do the Lincoln Memorial,’’ Buccacio said. “But the statue was in such bad shape that it made me sick to look at it. I told my wife that I’d find a way to restore it. I didn’t know how, but I knew I had to.’’

It took Buccacio a while to make good on that vow. For the next few years, he joined his longtime mentor, Woburn sculptor Robert Shure, to create a series of public statues, including a Korean War memorial in Worcester, a bas-relief of the Irish potato famine in Providence, and a memorial to fallen firefighters for a State House courtyard on Beacon Hill.

Buccacio also undertook several solo projects, including a statue of St. Francis of Assisi, installed in Boston’s St. Anthony Shrine, and the refurbishment of Milford’s World War I statue.

Obtaining restoration work can take a lot of effort, Buccacio said, because many would-be clients don’t immediately see the necessity.

“There is a huge misconception that if it’s metal or granite, the statue can be outside forever without needing any maintenance,’’ said Buccacio, who finished resurfacing the Draper statue last month.

Particularly in New England, the ravages of dirt, chemicals, extreme weather, and acid rain slowly erode the crisp lines, unique coloring, and deliberate patina of even the sturdiest statues, he said. The crude likeness remains, but over time the artistry is destroyed.

“I guess it’s fair to say that it’s like the difference between analog television and high definition,’’ he said. “I want my children - and my children’s children - to have high-def.’’

Reversing this aging process is Buccacio’s specialty. For the Draper statue, Buccacio put together a proprietary formulation of walnut shells, sand, and gentle cleaning agents to brush away decades of accumulated grime.

Once the statue was clean, he heated the metal surface and applied chemicals to bring back the rich caramel color that French originally envisioned. On top of this, Buccacio added several layers of lacquer and wax formulated to preserve bronze statuary.

When he was finished, Buccacio commenced the most difficult part of any restoration project: convincing budget-strapped public officials that regular maintenance makes good fiscal sense.

“I recommended that they do some maintenance work every year or so, to protect what I did,’’ he said.

“They asked if they could do it every couple of years, which is definitely better than nothing at all. This statue hadn’t been worked on since the early Eighties.’’

Budgetary restraints are also a consideration in Framingham, where Buccacio is designing and casting the centerpiece for a firefighter’s memorial to be installed at the department’s headquarters on Loring Drive.

The estimated $100,000 cost of creating the memorial is being underwritten by a grass-roots fund-raising campaign, said Fire Captain John S. Schultz. For donations of $500 to $5,000, supporters will be able to dedicate bricks that will be set into the plaza surrounding Buccacio’s bronze. The firefighters will donate their labor to landscape the park, Schultz said.

“We think he’s the best in the business,’’ said Schultz. “Some departments have a rock garden in front of the station, but we wanted more. We wanted something that people would stop and look at. Jeff’s making a statue of a working firefighter, someone that symbolizes all of the sacrifices our people make every day.’’

Schultz said at least seven firefighters have lost their lives fighting blazes in Framingham - four from the town’s department and three from neighboring Ashland.

Donors who contribute more than $5,000 will receive a bronze miniature of Buccacio’s statue.

It’s been a long time since Buccacio had to negotiate funding for his work, but he’s no stranger to parsimony. As a struggling art student at Arizona State University, he was so anxious over mounting student loans that he chose to join a friend who was doing set design in Hollywood. The year was 1995.

“I had a head of brown lettuce in the fridge and that was about it,’’ he said. “My friend said that within six months, I could get enough work in set design to pay off all my student loans and then some. I thought about it and thought about it. And then I went.’’

During his years as a Hollywood set designer, Buccacio was exposed to the excesses for which the locale is famous. Lifestyles were high-octane, tempers short, and budgets lavish. He also worked alongside some of the most creative minds in the business, including “Spider-Man’’ director Sam Raimi and Academy Award-winning costume designer James Acheson. The experience stimulated his creative side.

“Hollywood was all about pure creativity, pure design. The set that you worked on for months had to be smoking hot because that’s what you told the director you would give him,’’ he said. “And there was something cool about that. It was like you were looking down the barrel of a loaded gun.’’

To some extent, that gun is still pointed in Buccacio’s direction.

Though he has lived in Milford for more than four years, he continues to connect with the entertainment industry on projects. Working with an Oregon-based designer, he has been creating puppets for the Broadway production of “The Lion King.’’ He is also consulting with Hollywood producers on two film projects that are still in the pipeline.

“You won’t even see trailers for these movies for a couple of years,’’ he said. “I can’t talk about them, but I am working on them. And I’m working very hard.’’

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