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Local Artist Talks About Creating the Peyton Manning Statue

Writer / Lynda Hedberg Thies
Photographer / Jamie Sangar

His attention to detail and work ethic are legendary. He is humble and kind and has a great sense of humor. He is willing to share the credit for his success, and he has left a legacy in the city. Sounds like Peyton Manning?

Meet Ryan Feeney.

Ryan Feeney may have never played a day in a Colts jersey, but he won the Super Bowl of sculpting jobs when he was chosen from a very competitive field of artists from both the East and West Coast to create the larger than life statue of the iconic Peyton Manning.

Feeney fell in love with art when he was just 5 years old and only 7 when he created his first oil painting. While other kids were out playing games in the neighborhood, Feeney was either working on art projects or taking art classes with his mom. His talent was evident, so his parents enrolled him at Shortridge Junior High School for their Art Magnet program. While he played sports throughout his childhood, nothing really grabbed his attention, but his parents insisted he participate.

Feeney’s involvement in athletics changed when the 5-foot-6 freshman came to Cathedral High School. He knew he was too small to play football, so for three years he ran track and cross country. By his senior year, he was well entrenched in his art classes along with his other academics, but his art teacher, Barb Velonis, took him under her wing and mentored Feeney. She also introduced him to 3D drawing, which sealed the deal on his desire to pursue a college degree in design. But he was also craving the opportunity to play a contact sport, and that is when he discovered rugby.

Feeney found a rugby club at Lawrence North but soon realized that the travel time was cutting into his practice time. So, the coaches suggested he start a club at Cathedral. He could have just dropped the idea because he was about to graduate, but that was not Feeney.

So, in 1992, Feeney’s senior year, he started a Rugby Club at Cathedral. He found a couple of coaches, and he advertised the program and invited anyone to play so long as they did not have a school program, they could sign up for the Cathedral program. The first season the program finished in the middle of the pack. Today, the club is one of the premier programs in the country. Royal Irish Rugby, a 25-year-old program, has won four National Championships in the past six years and played the championship game both years they didn’t win. 

“There is no way to truly measure what rugby has done for this community because it constantly grows. What started as a small club here on the northeast side of Indy has now become a dominant program that has held the number one ranking for most of the last seven years,” says Dave Snyder, Royal Irish Rugby Coach.

Feeney’s legacy with the rugby program has led the club to create a “Ryan Feeney Founders Award,” given to players that need support to keep playing the game.

Feeney went to Miami University of Ohio to study Art and Design but was also able to continue playing rugby while a student there. The focus of his time at Miami was working on his skills. He even received his first commission when he was a senior there, and his professors supported him through the process. He graduated from Miami with a Bachelors of Fine Arts and a double major in graphic design and sculpture.

He started his career working in the art and graphic design department for a corporation and soon realized that he did not have as much time to work on doing what he loved, which involved designing statues. 

In 1999, Feeney joined the Indianapolis Fire Department because the 24 hours on, 48 hours off gave him the flexibility to spend more time sculpting. By the time he launched his design business, Indy Art Forge, he already had four bronze statues out around the city.

“Most guys at the station had a second job mowing lawns and landscaping, mine just happened to be in a studio,” Feeney says.

By the time the Colts announced that they were going to build a Peyton Manning statue, Feeney already had 15 public statues on his resume.

But this job was the biggest he had ever tackled, and his competition had bigger portfolio’s and even a staff of people to work on the project. Feeney was working as a firefighter and is a married father of two children, but he went for it anyway.

The interview process proved intimidating and the competition’s portfolio’s daunting. Colts Chief Operating Officer Pete Ward told him he had the weakest portfolio of everyone, and the other sculptors had even submitted a scaled down sculpture of Peyton.

“I don’t have the portfolio as these big-city sculptors that have five other artists working for me to do the work,” he recalls. ‘How could I compete,’ he thought to himself?”

But then he noticed that all the sculptors had left off the helmet. Knowing Peyton was the ultimate detail person, he promised a statue to them in three days and returned with the replica wearing a helmet and even included the wire strap, which the others had left off. So, he thought he got their attention.

“We will not go to step one or step two without your approval or go from two to three without your approval,” Feeney told Pete Ward. “I said, ‘If you hire me, living local, you can have input and involvement at every stage. I won’t get it right the first time, if I do, I’m lucky, but I always like to have other people look at it and tweak it.’”

Feeney’s reputation, attention to detail and physical location gave the Colts unprecedented access to work closely on the project without the expense of travelling to another state. They also loved that his vendors worked in the city, which meant it would benefit the community. They chose Feeney and arranged for him to fly to Nashville, Tennessee to photograph Manning in a conference room at the hanger to begin the process. His first meeting was a bit intimidating, but he got right to work as the Colts photographer snapped more than 400 photos.

Throughout the process of building the 9-foot-1 Manning figure, he worked with the Colts Equipment Manager, Ward and others to ensure that at every stage everyone was happy with the process and his progress. Like other projects he had worked on, he had a team of people involved, and when he was finished, he was confident Manning would like it but had to wait until the public unveiling of the project before he knew for sure.

In October 2017, around 25,000 people gathered in Indianapolis to participate in the unveiling. The unveiling ceremony included A-list dignitaries, including David Letterman, former Governor Mitch Daniels, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Colts owner Jim Irsay, former coach Tony Dungy and General Manager Bill Polian along with former players such as Jeff Saturday.

Feeney was beyond thrilled. He felt confident that Peyton would like the statue because he had so many people that participated in the project along the way.

Peyton came to the podium, looked over at Feeney and said, “Good job” before delivering his speech.

Immediately after the ceremony, Manning, who had been all business at the meeting in Nashville, greeted him warmly and thanked him for his effort. He then asked if he could introduce him to his mom, Olivia Manning. She greeted Feeney warmly and said, “The profile is perfect from where I stand, if he didn’t have the number or name on the jersey, even if it was a silhouette in the middle of the night, just in that stance alone, I would know it was Peyton.”

Feeney knew that no one knows Peyton better than his mom, so to have her approval meant a lot.

The day concluded with a private reception.

“It was so cool, I felt like an A- lister,” Feeney says.

Before any of the accolades could go to his head, he knew his fire station pals would make sure to bring his feet back to earth. Still, Feeney has taken time to reflect on his success.

“Enjoy what you do because then it won’t feel like work,” he says. “Money is money until you work at a job you hate. I have two jobs. I’m not rich, but I love what I do.”


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