Subscribe for 33¢ / day
020917-nws-statue002.JPG (copy)

James Van Nuys is the artist for the former president Barack Obama statue in downtown Rapid City. 

Former President Barack Obama is coming to Rapid City this fall. Well ... in bronze statue form. What's not clear, yet, is his pose, props or whether a companion will join him.

But he will be standing.

"He's a stand-up guy," said Dallerie Davis, co-founder of the City of Presidents, the life-size statues of American presidents mingling with pedestrians on street corners throughout downtown Rapid City.

And to the rumor that he'll be near Prayer Park at Fourth and St. Joseph streets, across the street from the staunch abolitionist Rutherford B. Hayes?

"I will neither confirm nor deny that rumor," Davis said, smiling. 

The nation's 44th president arrives over a year-and-a-half after he left office, what may seem a lifetime ago. But sculptor James Van Nuys' hands have been busy sculpting South Dakota governors for a Pierre display. On Wednesday afternoon in his downtown studio, at a table between his guitars and grand piano, the sculptor walked through his process, flipping through photographs on his laptop of his rendition of a hat-wearing Governor Leslie Jensen.

"That's a helmet from WWI," Van Nuys said.

Van Nuys, who has sculpted three other presidents, works the same for each. He begins with a miniature version. Then he bends wire into a eerie human-like stick figure, fleshes things out with plastic foam and clay, before casting molds and sending the figure to a foundry in Texas. Obama is coming along, just as he's supposed to, Van Nuys said.

"I've been on it (Obama's statue) for over a year. But as you can see," he said as he held up the clay head of a governor, "I'm busy."

The pressure to sculpt the nation's first black president is high. When the National Portrait Gallery unveiled paintings of Obama and first lady Michelle Obama in February, there was some head-scratching of painter Amy Sherald's depiction of a gray-scale, elongated Michelle Obama.

Van Nuys said verisimilitude is key. When he sculpted the cape-cloaked Franklin Pierce, president from the 1850s who has folded into relative obscurity, there were only a few photographs from which to craft or judge his work. But the "billions" of photographs online for Obama give him ample source material and possible scrutiny.

"Who cares if you don't get Millard Fillmore right?" Davis said, noting the distinction between a living and posthumous sculpture.

Getting the president's likeness down right can also be costly. Just ask the National Presidential Wax Museum. The Keystone museum had long relied upon sculptors with Hollywood experience to cast the nation's chief executives in wax up through President George W. Bush. When the museum turned to an apprentice to cast Obama, the result was a little peakish. So for President Donald Trump, management hired a former artist from Madame Tussaud's for $52,000.

The result, general manager Clay King says, is striking.

"This Trump is one of the best likenesses in wax in the world."

Down to the hair follicles and steely visage, the current commander-in-chief has been a hit for the museum. 

Casting a living president is different from a former president in another way, too: there's a legacy, sometimes contentious, to deal with. And politics.

Obama never won statewide vote in South Dakota. In 2008, Senator Hillary Clinton beat him in the primary. And the man who sat in the Oval Office after Obama vacated it — no fan of his predecessor — currently enjoys large support in the state.

Get news headlines sent daily to your inbox

But Lemmon sculptor John Lopez, who has worked on 12 presidential sculptures, said the presidential walk in Rapid City can transcend partisan flames when viewed as an entire unit. His jacket-less Jimmy Carter waves to a cowboy-hatted Ronald Reagan at St. Joseph and Sixth streets. Moreover, sculptures capture the personality. Historians draw parallels to Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy, so for Lopez's JFK statue, he added JFK's son. Lincoln is the only other president with a child. 

"The John Kennedy is my favorite as it represents him as a family man and loosens up the idea of the piece," Lopez said.

The walk of stolid figures is made alive by the playfulness and candor of the presidential poses: the violin-playing John Tyler, the rumpled James Buchanan watching the nation descend to Civil War, the baseball pitcher William Howard Taft, stooping to read the catcher's sign, and even Gerald Ford, whose large noggin required some artistic downsizing. 

Altman Studeny, instructor of art at Black Hills State University, notes it could be an inauspicious time to be putting up statues in America. Last summer, following a gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., confederate statues in places such as Baltimore and Memphis were brought down, some by extrajudicial means. A few presidents on the walk, including the impeached Bill Clinton or resigned Richard Nixon, call to mind bitter battles in the nation's past. 

"The meaning of the project can't help but change," Studeny said. But he added one striking element of the walk is the presentation of the presidents without comment. 

"If the presidential walk is at all democratic," Studeny said, "it's because we all ultimately have some control about who gets enshrined in it next."

Next, of course, will be President Trump. Famous for his unconventional communication style, especially on Twitter, maybe the next presidential sculpture will include a cellphone? There is precedent with President William McKinley, who holds the newfangled invention of the time to his ear: a receiver. And there's also the question of where #45 will go. Will President Trump also be on Fourth and St. Joseph streets? 

"I think we'll separate those two (Trump and Obama)," Davis said.

2
0
0
0
2
You must be logged in to react.
Click any reaction to login.

Education reporter