The talent behind some of the nation’s most beloved sculptures, Lou Cella developed a penchant for “getting it right” while making ravioli with his family as a youth.
Chicago sculptor extraordinaire Lou Cella speaks passionately about a recent documentary that captures the Beatles in the act of crafting “Get Back” and other hit songs. He is fascinated by the creative flame that springs to life as John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr conjure some of rock’s most iconic music and lyrics.
Cella’s awestruck reaction to the Fab Four’s genius is often shared by people who witness the public unveilings of his bronze statues. Onlookers gush with amazement over Cella’s mastery, often exclaiming, “It looks so real!”
Many of the individuals who Cella has immortalized are sports greats. Among them are Chicago Cubs heroes Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo and Fergie Jenkins, and Chicago White Sox legends Carlton Fisk, Paul Konerko and Frank Thomas. Cella’s remarkable sports portfolio also encompasses Green Bay Packer icon Paul Hornung; Chicago Bears superstar Gale Sayers; and Seattle Mariner Hall-of-Fame slugger Ken Griffey, Jr., to name just a few.
Given both the quantity and quality of his work, one might suspect that Cella has been molding amazingly realistic figurines out of Play-Doh since the age of 2, but he came to his calling much later in life.
The oldest of four children, Cella was born in Chicago at a Near North Side hospital where his grandfather was chief of staff. He traces his roots to Genoa on his father’s side and Poland on his mother’s.
Cella recalls a childhood rich in Italian culinary traditions, including creating ravioli from scratch. The various Cella families took turns making this special dish, frequently consulting each other regarding the exact ingredients and preparation. That penchant for “getting it right” is a trademark of his sculptural process.
Building on the art classes he took at Hersey High School in Arlington Heights, Cella went on to Illinois State University, where he majored in graphic arts. After college, he entered the workforce as a designer of sales promotion pieces.
Along the way, Cella developed an interest in three-dimensional art, making comic book action figures in his spare time. Then he started creating roughly 8-inch-tall figurines of Hollywood celebrities such as Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. As a sports enthusiast, Cella’s interest soon turned to subjects such as golfing great Sam Sneed, Cella’s first work for hire, as well as baseball notables.
Cella soon yearned to create full-size sculptures. By chance, he came across an opportunity to take classes at the Rotblatt Amrany Studio in Highwood, Illinois. There, he began a life-long journey under the tutelage of Omri and Julie Rotblatt Amrany, who have achieved hall-of-fame status in the world of sculpture.
Omri and his studio gained international acclaim in 1994 with the unveiling of the Michael Jordan statue outside the United Center.
Cella recounts his first project at the studio: creating a bust of Clark Gable. After a couple of months, he presented it to Omri, who responded: “That’s good, now it’s time to get started. Anyone who sees it will know it’s Clark Gable. But I want to FEEL that it’s Clark Gable.” It was a humbling but valuable learning experience, says Cella.
Each project that Cella undertakes is unique in its challenges. To illustrate, he relates stories about creating statues of two Chicago baseball legends, both of whom were inducted into the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame.
The first is Ron Santo, who Cella captured in bronze shortly after the Cubs great passed away in 2010. Happily, Cella notes, he had the opportunity to visit with Santo a couple of times in person. Interestingly, both and he Cubs management were thinking about portraying Santo fielding a bunt rather than in his batting stance. But no picture existed of Santo making that exact play, so Cella had to sift through photos that collectively evoked the pose.
Cella’s commitment to getting it right is confirmed in a minute detail of the Santo statue. It turns out that the button on the top of the cap of the 1969 Cubs uniform, which Santo is wearing, was leather. That year and before, all the Cubs caps had a twill button. When Cubs memorabilia afficionado Dan Knoll pointed this out while sculpting was in progress, Cella immediately made the correction.
The second NIASHF member created by Cella was Paul Konerko. Cella was told that the 2014 unveiling of the statue had to be kept a secret from the White Sox great. That meant Cella couldn’t meet with Konerko nor ask for a special photo shoot, since that would tip him off.
The Sox had a specific pose in mind: Konerko’s fist-in-the-air gesture after hitting a pivotal grand slam home run in the 2005 World Series. One challenge, says Cella, was getting Konerko’s facial expression just right from videos since there were no exact photos of that moment.
Another challenge of the project was Konerko’s “perfect” model-like face. Cella notes that it’s much easier to capture the look of individuals like Harry Caray or Vince Lombardi, who have striking facial features. With Konerko, Cella discloses, nothing stands out.
It is no secret that Konerko is a perfectionist. So, it was particularly rewarding when Cella heard on a radio talk show the day after the unveiling that Konerko said of the sculpture, “I would not change a thing.”
As unpredictability as each project is, Cella is proud to say that when most stars view their sculptures for the first time, they just stare. Others around him will be cheering and commenting, but the subject usually remains silent and motionless. Cella has come to understand that this lack of reaction was neither a sign of disappointment nor displeasure.
Cella admits that COVID-19 has impacted his profession, just as it has almost everything else. Some projects were put on hold because of the pandemic, and the cost of bronze as well as shipping has gone up significantly. Luckily, Rotblatt Amrany has been commissioned to create several major pieces for Auburn University.
To be sure, Cella’s portfolio has included more than sport celebrities. For example, he created statues of American food scientist and popcorn superstar Orville Redenbacher, as well as University of Notre Dame icons Frs. Theodore Hesburgh and Edmund Joyce, which are positioned on the university campus in front of the library.
Last year, Cella stepped out of the athletic arena once again to co-sculpt with Jessica LoPresti a statue of St. Frances Cabrini that graces the courtyard at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago. In January 2023, Cella accompanied the director of the National Shrine of Mother Cabrini in Chicago to present a miniature version of the sculpture to Pope Francis in Rome.
Cella, who resides in the northwest suburbs, is married and has one daughter. She, like her father, does her best to balance her local sports allegiances. Among her prized positions are two autographed baseballs: one of Cubs star Anthony Rizzo and the other, of course, of “Paulie” Konerko.