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Artist sculpts Albany's past, one expression at a time

"Bird Lady" on clay

"Bird Lady" on clay

ALBANY, Ga. -- With her hands, Gayla Catrett is bringing new life into an old visage; putting a new face on Albany by recreating the face of its founder.

Catrett, an artist with a passion for sculpture, has spent the last six months crafting the face of Nelson Tift; the businessman; congressman and founder of Albany.

Originally commissioned by the city of Albany to develop a full-sized statue of Tift, Catrett settled on a bronze bust instead.

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One version of Gayla Catrett's Sculpture of Nelson Tift is pictured. Catrett says she'd like to continue a series of notable Albany figures in the future.

"It's just more practical," Catrett says. "Bronzing a full-sized statue isn't cheap, nor is it the easiest thing to work with."

And so, around January, she got started recreating one of Albany's most historic faces based only on a pixelated and grainy portrait that was likely taken at some point in the mid-1800s.

"It was really hard to see any of the real details of the man; and it really made him look older than he was and so we managed to get in touch with the family and they sent over a much better photo and I began to read his diaries and learn as much as I could about the man," she said.

And slowly, crease by crease and smudge by smudge, Mr. Tift materialized. What appeared is a face much different than what many who are used to the typical portrait seen in history books may be accustomed to.

It's a visage of a somewhat gaunt, middle-aged man; a slight smirk of contentment on his face; his sideburns and suit cut each marked in the style of the time.

Now bronzed and in the process of being mounted at Thronateeska Heritage Museum, Catrett is already looking ahead to the next in what she hopes will be a series of Albany notables.

Interestingly enough, Catrett would like to stick with a historical figure whose impact on Albany is significant, but one who wasn't from here.

"I'd really like to do Horace King," Catrett says. "I think he was just an amazing man to, given his situation and the lot in life that society had placed him in, that he was going around designing these beautiful bridges."

A slave born in 1807, King was sold to a contractor and bridge builder named John Goodwin, who then utilized King in his business designing bridges.

In 1858, after King had -- oddly enough -- been freed by a special act of the Alabama Legislature after he helped design and build the new Alabama Statehouse. Tift contracted with King to build a toll bridge across the Flint River using Tift's money after the City Commission failed to support the idea.

While King's original bridge no longer spans the river in Albany, the Bridge House, which he designed and built, still stands on the banks of the Flint and serves as the welcome center for the Albany Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Catrett always has been an art lover. In grade school she grew an affinity for the art classes that she took and that eventually led to her picking up a hobby with her mother than involved making porcelain dolls and molds.

In her 30s, she returned to school to get an art degree and began making a number of different things.

"Some of the of stuff I've done is really, really bad and some of it is pretty good," Catrett says. "Consistency is key and working towards consistency, but I really haven't had the time to delve into it like I'd like."

Balancing her addiction to art with the practical requirements of putting food on the table and paying the bills has kept Catrett and her husband -- who is a skilled woodworker in his own right -- busy.

The two have always been in small business. They owned Roto Rooter in Albany until 2003 and now operate Southern Services -- a full-service company that specializes in cleaning vent hoods and maintaining restaurant equipment.

"It's been hard juggling everything," Catrett says. "But that's part of it, I guess ... so that's kept me from doing a lot of what I really want to get into, which is more abstract stuff."

Catrett says she'd love to dive more into metal working, but that requires all new tools, like MIG welders and grinders.

So for now, Catrett is content with feeding her habit in small, consistent bites while hoping to score more paying commissions to help subsidize her work -- crafting, molding and scraping Albany's next big works of art.