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Hollywood meets Northwoods

Surges brings his large-scale talent to the Northwoods

April 18, 2020 by Emily Koester

For Carl Surges of Conover, art has been something he has explored since he was a kid. 

His mother was an artist, his father a salesman for General Electric — “no artistic ability whatsoever” — and on rainy days, to keep him and his two siblings busy, Surges’ mother would set the kids up at a table with clay.

“I’ve been sculpting pretty much since I was three years old,” Surges said.

Surges was born and raised in Wausau, and attended college at the University of Wisconsin-

Milwaukee, where he studied physics and film. Although he never graduated from college, what he learned from both subjects would eventually come in handy. 

Surges’ original plan was to do stop motion animation and effects, which he did some of while still in Milwaukee. He would send a demo reel of the work he had done to contacts he found in the Los Angeles Yellow Pages, and when one of them hired him, he and his wife at the time moved to California. 

For 10 years Surges lived near Hollywood, California, and for much of that time he sculpted characters — including King Kong at Universal Studios, a spider for the film “Arachnophobia,” and worked on the film “Beetlejuice.” 

After about nine months working for Animedia, a small company which did promotional videos and commercials, Surges met someone who had done work for Universal Studio Tours and who was about to start a 

sculpture project with the company, and he asked Surges to join.

“I have been freelance sculpting ever since then,” Surges said. “I was out there during the 1980s, and all during that time my specialty was audio-anamatronic characters, for theme parks and that sort of thing.”

Working in Hollywood

When creating these characters — which ranged from days to weeks to make, depending on the size — Surges said he would be given a picture of the character he was supposed to sculpt and he had to translate that into 3D.

Usually the core was cut out of urethane foam, similar to styrofoam, which would end up as “a rough approximation of the sculpture we were eventually going to end up with in foam,” known as an armature.

“Once the foam carving was done, then we would coat that with water-based (pottery) clay and sculpt in the details,” Surges said. “So we got wet a lot, we had to spray the clay and keep it moist for the entire time that we were doing the sculpture, which meant we had to work very, very fast so the clay wouldn’t dry out, because once the clay dries out on top of that foam armature, it shrinks.”

If the clay were to dry up and shrink, it would crack around the rigid foam.

“Once the sculpture was finished, then what we would do is paint that with shellac, which formed a water barrier,” Surges said. “Once that was done, then other artists would come in and coat that with fiberglass and make a mold. Once the mold was done, they would lay fiberglass on the inside of that mold and that would become the character. Then they would chop that character up and put mechanisms inside of it to make it move.”

Much of the work Surges did was for Universal Studios Tours, but he also worked on anamatronic type work for other companies as well.

“We did King Kong at Universal Studios. That was kinda fun, that was one of the big ones,” Surges said. “I remember crawling around on the head that was taller than I was. So I sculpted the head and the shoulders. So I’m up on this big pile of foam and carving on King Kong.”

Surges also did work for some films, including “The Thing,” “Harry and the Hendersons,” “Arachnophobia,” and “Beetlejuice.” It was in a production meeting for “Arachnophobia” where Surges met well-known producer, Steven Spielberg.

“Steven Spielberg walked in on a meeting, in tennis shorts, shot the breeze a little bit then walked out,” Surges remembered. “I’ve worked with Steven as an art director on a couple of other projects, but never really met him until that time. He would know the project, he would know what I had done, but he didn’t know me.” Surges said he didn’t want to make the encounter “bigger than it really is.”

Returning to his roots

Surges moved back to Wisconsin in the late 1990s with his second wife, Lynne, because they wanted to raise their daughter in the Northwoods. He was able to work on smaller projects — sculptures, miniatures, “maquettes, they call them” — remotely and send them to clients. 

“I had tried to decide on whether or not I wanted to change tack and do my own line of sculptures, or whether or not I wanted to start Pier of d’Nort, because I had this idea and I thought it might be worth pursuing,” Surges said of his current pier business. “I chose starting Pier of d’Nort because I thought it would be easier. Boy was I wrong. But it eventually worked out.”

Although due to financial strains the couple lost their house on South Twin Lake in Conover, Surges was able to move back with the success of his new line of work.

The start of the business began with an idea, which Surges had to play with for a while to perfect, before it all fell into place. Surges made a miniature version of what he wanted as a final product, showed it to some family and friends in hopes of gaining investors, and “eventually it just kinda happened.”

“It was your standard garage operation,” Surges said.

Pier of d’Nort moved the short distance to St. Germain in 2007.

Pierre of d’Nort

Those who have driven on Highway 70 in St. Germain can probably say they’ve seen a piece of Surges’ work, because it’s hard to miss. The face of Surges’ company, Pier of d’Nort, is the 12-foot-tall giant Pierre, who sits fishing off a pier along the highway in front of the business.

Pierre took about five years to build, mostly on-site during the off-season for a pier company.

“I wanted there to be an attention-getter out front, but something that would also be fun,” Surges said of the happy giant. 

Pierre has become somewhat of a tourist attraction, and is included in Roadside America, an online guide to unique tourist att

ractions. He was built entirely in-house during the off-season for the pier business, and at the time took up most of the space in the building for the time it took to build him. And for comparison purposes, Pierre is roughly the same size as King Kong’s head.

Pierre was Surges’ last big sculpting project.

“I had done enough sculpture to where I don’t miss it (in California),” Surges said. “I can still do it, it’s not something that I’m ever going to lose, but I’m having more fun now. I don’t do any freelance sculpting at all. I have my own line of sculptures … I can do that at any time. Maybe that’s something that I will do in retirement. Too much fun doing piers. I’m enjoying what I’m doing.”

Emily Koester may be reached at [email protected]

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