Her potential next high-profile commission, however, could present her with a new challenge: She would be portraying a famous Floridian but doesn’t know which one. Yet.
In a national competition, Comas was selected by Florida’s Council on Arts and Culture to create a new sculpture for the National Statuary Hall, inside the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. State legislators are expected to name the subject next year, when they would also need to approve Comas’ appointment by the advisory council and the project budget.
Comas’ piece would replace the statue of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, who was ousted by a Florida legislative vote last year as other states weighed removing symbols of the Confederacy.
The three finalists for Smith’s replacement are: Civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune, who started a private school for African-Americans in Daytona Beach; George Jenkins, founder of Publix supermarkets; and Marjory Stoneman Douglas, champion of the Everglades.
“It IS fairly unusual,” said Comas, laughing, about having a mystery subject for the project.
On a recent Wednesday, she was working in her downtown Fort Lauderdale studio on a private commission: the figure of a seated young girl.
Part of Comas’ artistic process is to meticulously research her subject’s personality and history before picking up a sculpting tool, “so I am feeling the person when I start creating the piece,” Comas said. “I want it to be very human, so it will move people in a certain way.”
Given legislators will be picking from three finalists, Comas is hedging her bets and reading up on all of the candidates. Bethune was a front-runner in a public poll, so Comas has been paying particular attention to the pioneering educator.
“She is quite an interesting person, coming from a humble background,” said Comas, noting that Bethune’s parents were slaves. “She pretty much taught herself to read and write after a little white girl told her blacks couldn’t do that. She ended up being very good friends with [President Franklin] Roosevelt.”
A native of Puerto Rico, Comas started visiting Fort Lauderdale as a child with her grandparents to their vacation house. She made her home here 34 years ago, she said, after graduating with her first college fine arts degree.
If you’re a local, you’ve probably seen her public pieces: the coy inline-skating child in Fort Lauderdale’s Colee Hammock; the statue of actress Kaye Stevens in a Margate park; and the palm-frond carrying Seminole Indian girl proudly striding west along Fort Lauderdale’s Riverwalk.
“Nilda is, by far, the most accomplished, diverse total artist that I know,” said William Riddle, an interior decorator and president of the Venetian Arts Society, a nonprofit group promoting the arts in South Florida. “I look for honesty, truth and sincerity when it comes to art. I find that in Nilda’s work.”
Comas volunteers as the visual arts curator for the society, which raised $50,000 toward the “Seminole Girl” project, celebrating Florida’s 500th anniversary. When the artist told Riddle she was going to enter the U.S. Capitol statue competition, “I wasn’t surprised,” he said. “I took it for granted she’d win.”
The state’s 15-member arts and culture council, appointed by the governor and legislators, first winnowed the field down to 51 artists from across the country, then picked 10 finalists who made presentations in Tallahassee at the end of October. Comas was the only woman.
Council member Katharine Dickenson, a Boca Raton resident active in historic preservation and arts promotion, said the competition and decision was tough.
“They all had very high-quality work,” she said. “But Nilda is very talented, had an incredible bio, and carves for part of the year in Italy. She’s versatile. And she had the added advantage of being from Florida.”
The project budget is about $250,000 to $500,000, Comas said.
Classically trained and a cum laude graduate of the New York Academy of Figurative Art, Comas is among a small group of female sculptors who craft large, poetic, realistic pieces in marble or bronze.
When she began learning marble carving at the Studio Franco Cervietti in Italy, she remembers “the workers looking at me like, well, ‘She won’t last long,'” Comas said. “I was so skinny and small. They were nice to me, but I could see I would have to earn their respect.”
In her career, she has been showered with awards and honors, including first place for sculpture from London’s Hambros Bank — and, as a result, was invited to tea at Highgrove House with Prince Charles and saw his watercolors. “His work was actually quite good,” Comas said.
While she waits for the Legislature to determine where her art will take her next, Comas is keeping busy planning a huge monument to Argentinian Gen. Jose de San Martin to be placed in Miami, as well as doing private commissions, and adding to her existing installations at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Doral.
Oh, and in her spare time, she loves to tango.
“It’s been a beautiful up and down, traveling through my life,” Comas said.
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