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Fresno native designs statue commemorating lifeguard’s sacrifice

A statue memorializing lifeguard Ben Carlson is unveiled at Newport Beach. Carlson’s brother-in-law, Fresno native Jake Janz, designed the 9-foot-tall statue of Carlson, 32, watching the horizon for distressed swimmers just as he did the day he died, on July 6, 2014, while helping with a rescue. The statue is made of marine-grade stainless steel.
A statue memorializing lifeguard Ben Carlson is unveiled at Newport Beach. Carlson’s brother-in-law, Fresno native Jake Janz, designed the 9-foot-tall statue of Carlson, 32, watching the horizon for distressed swimmers just as he did the day he died, on July 6, 2014, while helping with a rescue. The statue is made of marine-grade stainless steel. Special to The Bee

Innovative technology turned Fresno-born product designer and branding artist Jake Janz into a sculptor of public monuments.

Janz created a 9-foot-tall stainless steel lifeguard that scans the Newport Beach horizon looking for distressed swimmers, just as his brother-in-law, Ben Carlson, did the day he died two years ago.

Thousands of people, including Carlson’s family, friends and fellow lifeguards, gathered for the unveiling of the statue on July 6 to commemorate the lifeguard’s sacrifice two years ago to the day. The larger-than-life statue shields the sun from his eyes with his right hand. During the unveiling, the sun’s angle made the gesture seem natural, the stainless steel glinting in the warm, pink air.

In life, everybody has a purpose. Ben served his. This is a talent that I had and all the right people came into our lives at the right time to make it happen.

Jake Janz, sculptor and brother-in-law

“The statue is really meaningful not only to us, but the whole community,” Janz said. “Being from Fresno, I respect the ocean, but I respect it on a whole new level seeing what lifeguards do every day.”

On July 6, 2014, Carlson leaped off a rescue boat without hesitation to help save the distressed swimmer. A heavy swell took them both under; the swimmer had been buoyed and was pulled to safety, but Carlson did not resurface.

He became the first Newport Beach lifeguard to die in the line of duty.

Janz, his wife Stephanie – who was Ben’s sister – and their two sons had the chance to spend time with Carlson during the final six months of his life when they moved to Newport Beach three years ago.

“God put us where we were right then for a reason,” Janz said. “To spend that time with Ben was really special and to be involved in this, I feel like it’s our purpose and everyone on the foundation feels the same way.”

At first, Janz wasn’t going to sculpt the statue. A product designer and branding artist by trade, he’s comfortable in a digital medium. He hadn’t sculpted since college, where he worked with clay and bronze – the old way.

One of the sculptors Janz approached about making the statue was Richard MacDonald, whom Janz considers the best sculptor in the world. But MacDonald’s son intercepted the communication.

Because Richard MacDonald Jr. comes from a family of artists, he knew the pros and cons of outsourcing the statue. A professional sculptor would execute the attention to detail that public monuments require. But it would cost more, and the sculptor wouldn’t have the family connection or heart for the project like Janz would.

MacDonald sensed that deep down, Janz wanted to be involved, so he introduced Janz to the technology that could transform sketches into megapixels, clay into foam, bronze into stainless steel and Janz into a sculptor.

Janz jumped at the chance. Like most technology buffs, Janz taught himself the software with YouTube tutorials, learning the ropes within two weeks. He transferred his digital rendering to foam, hand-sculpted the details, then cast it in stainless steel.

I think the way Jake created it is the way it needed to be. I come from a family of sculptors, and nobody wants to see the same sculpture over and over again. This statue is fresh and new.

Richard MacDonald Jr., gallery owner

“It was a huge gamble, but my heart was there and my confidence was instilled in me by one of the world’s greatest sculptors’ son,” he said. “In life, everybody has a purpose. Ben served his. This is a talent that I had, and all the right people came into our lives at the right time to make it happen.”

MacDonald said the statue became a special part of Janz’s grieving process, and his involvement from beginning to end as creator and sculptor added a wonderful dimension.

“I think the way Jake created it is the way it needed to be,” MacDonald said. “I come from a family of sculptors, and nobody wants to see the same sculpture over and over again. This statue is fresh and new.”

He said the statue is a win for Janz, for Carlson’s family and for the city of Newport Beach.

Because Janz did his part of the project for free, it cost $100,000 for materials – much less than bids from professional artists, which ranged from $200,000 to $250,000. Janz said the Newport Beach community donated the funds to pay for the statue.

“It’s a donation from our foundation and an investment of my time that’s probably the most meaningful piece of art I will ever create,” he said.

Janz grew up in Fresno. He attended Starr Elementary School and Tenaya Middle School, and he graduated from Bullard High School in 1999. He attended Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles and met his wife while on vacation. They settled down in Orange County for eight years before moving to Newport Beach.

But Janz said Fresno is still a special place for him and his family, which still has relatives and friends in town.

“I think this whole story started with such an incredible tragedy, but ever since then, it has created this sense of community,” Janz said. “There’s never been a story like this that has moved the community to come to such a closer bond. We’re trying to do anything positive we can in reaction to it.”

Along with the statue, other positive reactions include setting up the Ben Carlson Memorial Foundation, hosting 15 fundraisers, giving out five scholarships that totaled $40,000, partnering with the brand Hurley to start a Ben Carlson collection and researching a GPS tracking device for submerged swimmers.

JoAnna Kroeker: 559-441-6247, @jobethkroeker

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