KENSINGTON -- Rob Firmin had a front-row seat when President Barack Obama and Congressional leaders lifted a drape covering the bronze statue of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks that Firmin helped create at the U.S. Capitol last month.
For a person who specializes in historical research and analysis, the significance of the event wasn't lost on Firmin, who lives and maintains his studio in the West Contra Costa town of Kensington.
"The (Capitol's) official architect said it was by far the biggest event of its kind he had ever seen in the Capitol," Firmin said.
Firmin and his creative partner, Eugene Daub, were introduced to Obama, House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi before the ceremony.
Boehner acknowledged them by name during his remarks to the 220 people in the hall and about 1,000 others who were watching on TV in nearby public rooms.
Firmin and Daub specialize in public sculptures of historical figures, and the Parks statue was one of eight projects they have completed together, Daub said.
Firmin said he writes the proposals and does the historical analysis in designing the projects to reflect the personality, spirit and significance of the figures being depicted.
Daub does most of the sculpting of models and casting of the figures. He practiced and taught sculpture in the Bay Area before moving to Southern California, and the two met when Firmin
"(Firmin) is passionately interested in any project we take on, in the history and all the aspects of it, and he goes really deep," Daub said. "My expertise is the sculpture."
They also created a statue of a young Abraham Lincoln for his hometown of Hodgenville, Ky., a memorial commemorating Thomas Jefferson's founding of the University of Virginia and a statue of gay rights leader Harvey Milk in San Francisco City Hall, among other works.
The Abraham Lincoln figure is of the president at 7 years old holding a fishing pole, along with his dog, Honey.
The young Lincoln looks up into the face of a statue of Lincoln as president placed in the Hodgenville town square in 1909, said Iris LaRue, director of Hodgenville's Lincoln Museum.
"They positioned (Lincoln) as if he was looking towards the future," LaRue said. "They developed a real feel for the history of a child in Kentucky at that time, and we appreciated their time and insight."
Firmin, who has a degree in art history with a specialty in sculpture and architecture, said he thinks research into the historical subjects' background is vitally important to doing a statue or memorial properly.
For example, he said, he discovered there is much more to Parks' story than most of the public is aware.
The popular image of Parks is that she was a seamstress who refused to give up her seat to a white person on a segregated Alabama bus simply because she was tired and her feet hurt after a long day of work, Firmin said.
The reality is that her husband was a civil rights pioneer and that she had worked for many years documenting racist incidents in Montgomery, Ala., he said.
Her resistance in the 1955 incident came after years of resentment over Jim Crow laws that excluded African-Americans from equal participation in public life.
Parks' civil disobedience and subsequent arrest led to the 381-day-long Montgomery Bus Boycott, spearheaded by 26-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr., that ended when a U.S. Supreme Court ruling struck down laws requring segregation on public buses.
Firmin said the expression on Parks' face and her demeanor reflects Obama's description of her in his speech at the unveiling:
"Long before she made headlines, she had stood up for freedom, stood up for equality -- fighting for voting rights, rallying against discrimination in the criminal justice system, serving in the local chapter of the NAACP."
The statue was authorized by Congress following Parks' death in 2005 at 92. It was the first full-sized statue authorized and funded by Congress since 1873 and the first statue of an African-American woman in the U.S. Capitol, according to the National Endowment of the Arts.
"I think it's a wonderful rendition of Mrs. Parks, and it does show her quiet strength," Elaine Steele, a longtime friend of Parks, told the Detroit Free-Press. Steele is co-founder of the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development in Detroit, where Parks lived and worked for many years for Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers.
Firmin and Daub were chosen to be among three finalists from 115 artists who submitted proposals. They were awarded the commission in November 2009 and completed a full-size clay version a year later.
A full-size mold of the clay figure was ready in March 2011, and Daub cast the statue in bronze in his studio in July 2011.
The partners then had the statue taken by truck to Washington, D.C., where it remained in a warehouse until it was moved to the Capitol, commemorating what would have been Parks' 100th birthday on Feb. 4.
The partners, aided by a rigging team, moved the figure and its granite base to its spot in the hall and used a pair of hoists to mount the statue on the base.
A figure of Confederate Civil War Gen. Robert E. Lee had to be moved to a different part of the building to make way for the Parks figure, Firmin said.
Occupation: Public artist
Education: B.A., art history, Denison University; M.B.A., Columbia University; Ph.D., demography, University of Chicago
Claim to Fame: Has created public statues and memorials honoring Rosa Parks, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and other important historical figures. For more information about his work, go to http://dfsculpturestudios.com/