Whale of a project

Sculptor puts his special touch on J.J.

D. Lynn Reeves can’t keep his hands off his work, especially his latest creation.

He’s about a week from finishing the clay model of the life-size sculpture of J.J., the baby whale rescued by the SeaWorld staff that will have a home at the refurbished Kellogg Park Playground at La Jolla Shores once enough money is raised to finish the project.

But until the Friends of La Jolla Shores come up with about $66,000, the work is in the holding pattern. The next step is a trip to the foundry for bronze casting, the most expensive and final step, explained Mary Coakley, who spearheaded The Map project at the park and also led the renovation effort.

Reeves also worked on the Map, creating the bronze sea life replicas in the “water” of the marine reserve mockup at the south end of the park.

Special touch

As he walked around the 14 1/2–foot-long J.J., he constantly reached out to add a touch more texture or to smooth a spot.

“I never stop touching it,” he said. Neither do visitors or the neighborhood children who helped him apply clay a couple of weeks ago.

His sculpture workshop has taken over the garage of his La Mesa home, a historic Craftsman he restored and expanded. His paintings and drawings occupy an airy upstairs studio.

A fine artist by training who attended San Diego State, Reeves spent his working days as a custom home builder, but his true love is his art - oils of sailboats (his other love), pencil drawings and sculptures of polo players (he built a home for the owner of a polo club), and colorful abstract paintings.

Details, details

“I went back and forth to SeaWorld to make sure every detail was right,” he said last week. “The trainers were very picky.”

He worked from their images and dimensions of the week-old whale that was found nearly comatose on a beach in Marina del Rey and brought to SeaWorld in January 1997. She was nursed back to health and released when she was just over a year old.

Reeves and his assistant, Jose Gonzalez, paid attention “to every little bump.” He read about whales’ skeleton so he would know where their bones were and about neonatal folds that appear as rounded ridges along J.J.'s body so he understood how to make them look lifelike.

Touching moment

When he showed the trainers the quarter-scale model - which took about five weeks to get right - he said they looked at it and one said, “She’s perfect.” Another had tears in her eyes.

He made a point of letting them know he wanted to know every detail that “is unique to this little girl ... tell me and I’ll put it on her,” he added.

Once the quarter-scale model was complete, a silicone master mold was made so they could make additional castings later.

Then he worked with Gerry Kirk, a sculptor who has worked with Niki de St. Phalle, to move to the full-scale J.J.

Step by step

“He’s sort of the old-school type,” Reeves said, explaining that Kirk works by taking multiple measurements and transferring them to a large block of foam that is then cut out to match the model. “New school” uses computer scanning to scale up.

“It’s a lot like shaping a surfboard,” he added.

After that 10-week process, the foam was covered with a quarter-inch layer of clay.

Then came the fun - and work - for Reeves and his assistant. With about three weeks in and a week’s worth of work to complete this phase, they’ve already used about a hundred 50-pound boxes of clay at $180 a box.

Costly process

Now come the next challenges - raising the rest of the money to finish the project, which is the bronze casting stage. The small model costs about $4,000, Coakley said.

But before it can be cast, there is a meticulous process of making the molds, a series of sections of plaster. The bronze is then poured into them and comes out looking like “a pile of plates and shapes. It looks terrible - they’re burnt and different colors,” Reeves said.

Then a frame is built and the pieces are “squared up” and welded together.

“That takes real talent,” Reeves said, adding that the seams must then be ground down and the texture applied by hand. Then comes the patina, which is another project in its own right.

He touched J.J. again, looking a bit sad. “When (the casting) is done, the clay model is pretty useless … basically ready for the dump, although we can probably find someone to recycle the clay.”

And then he turned to Coakley and asked, “Should we make a fiberglass mold so you’d have a master mold in full size?”

For more information on the Kellogg Park project, go to