A Fair Likeness : Sculptor Previews Statue of Del Mar's Don Diego

San Diego County Arts Editor

The tall bronze statue loomed larger and friendlier than life while foundrymen with torches toasted its surface. Then artist Maher Morcos applied the finishing patina to his sculpture of Tommy Hernandez, the late, lamented toast of the Del Mar Fair--a handsome, ebullient man who had greeted fairgoers for nearly four decades as the character Don Diego.

The work, which will be unveiled publicly the night before the fair's June 20 opening and will be permanently situated at the fairgrounds entrance, was exhibited for the press Thursday morning at the artist's Kettner Boulevard studio. It had been shipped from a foundry in Santa Fe, N.M., where Morcos had cast its 1,500-pound, 16 1/2-foot high bulk.

Winner of a $44,000 competition to memorialize Tommy Hernandez, who died last June 3 of leukemia, Morcos has captured Don Diego in his characteristic pose--the right arm outstretched in greeting, the left lifting high his sombrero.

Morcos is a native of Egypt who resides in San Diego and is a widely noted creator of cowboy and Western art. The Don Diego statue marks his first public placement in the United States.

The 38-year-old artist explained that the finishing-touch patina he was applying to the statue consisted of an acid mixture that sinks into the heated bronze, seals and protects it, and imparts much of its antique toning. Morcos estimated that he spent 650 to 750 hours creating the work, which will stand on a 6-foot granite pedestal at the fairground.

"I never met (Hernandez), though I very much wanted to meet and see him as Don Diego," said Morcos. "So I had to work from collected photographs, about 250 of them. But it's a funny thing about Tommy--it seems there are no profile or back view shots of him. He was the sort of showman who smelled the camera, and always turned full-face to it. He also had a bald spot on the back of his head that he preferred to hide."

As a result, Morcos found it somewhat difficult to depict Don Diego in three dimensions.

"I had to use my imagination," the artist said. "And I relied on the opinions of those who had been close to him. Artistically, I don't think the work could be any better than it is."

Born north of Cairo, Egypt, Morcos studied architecture at Cairo University before coming to the United States in 1972 to join his family, which had immigrated to Chicago. As a teen-ager, Morcos had won numerous Egyptian painting competitions and was a textbook illustrator.

As a child in Cairo, Morcos said, "Indians appeared to me as a symbol of America." When his portrait of an American Indian appeared on a U.S. magazine cover, the resulting demand for his work encouraged him to devote his career to Western art, and he subsequently relocated to San Diego.

"It makes me feel very good to do something like this for San Diego," said Morcos of the Hernandez statue. "I live here and work here, and this will give me a lot of pride."

The statue is due to be unveiled at a June 19 dinner to raise money for a Tommy Hernandez memorial scholarship fund. The 105th annual Del Mar Fair runs June 20 to July 7.

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