A boom in busts: A sculptor with an unusual vision takes on the heads of state

Thursday, October 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Houston sculptor David Adickes is casting 20-foot busts of the 41 U.S. presidents. They'll be displayed in three educational gardens around the nation.

By Joyce Saenz Harris / The Dallas Morning News

HOUSTON – David Adickes has a big head.

Actually, he has dozens of big heads. He's a sculptor whose latest project is casting 20-foot busts of the 41 U.S. presidents. The plan is to display them in three educational sculpture gardens around the nation, including one near Mount Rushmore.

This is how it happened: In 1994, Mr. Adickes visited South Dakota's Black Hills and found Gutzon Borglum's monumental sculpture "just overwhelming. But you can't get close to it. So it just hit me: Do Rushmore at garden level!"

At 73, Mr. Adickes (pronounced AD-ix) is a lively, compact man with a leprechaun-like twinkle in his eye. Whatever he may lack in physical height, he more than compensates for with big dreams.

For starters, he created Big Sam, the 67-foot statue of Texian hero Sam Houston that looms alongside Interstate 45 near Huntsville. And now, most of the Paris-trained artist's time is occupied in making larger-than-life images of legends.

"Doing the Sam Houston made me fall in love with doing something very big," Mr. Adickes admits. "It's ego-serving. And 47,000 people see it every day. ... Everybody I know has seen it."

The unexpected sight of Big Sam makes tourists' mouths fall open in amazement. But if he gets his way, Mr. Adickes someday will create a cowboy statue that would put even Big Sam in the shade for sheer, incredible Texas-style size.

Mr. Adickes wants to make his concrete cowboy 280 feet tall. Two hundred and eighty feet ... the height of a 28-story building, or more than four times the height of Big Sam. The Statue of Liberty, by way of comparison, is a puny 151 feet, not counting her pedestal.

The Adickes cowboy would not be the tallest statue in the world: That honor goes to a 394-foot bronze Buddha in Tokyo. But it would be bigger than the previous champion full-figure statue, a 270-foot Soviet-era gargantua called "Motherland," in Volgograd.

Mr. Adickes figures that a native Texan should be able to outdo the Russians any day. Moreover, he loves the idea of his giant cowboy standing alongside Interstate 35 between Austin and San Antonio, bestriding the Hill Country like the Colossus of Rhodes in a Stetson.

"That would sort of top off the Western thing – because it's fading fast," Mr. Adickes says. "It'll be the swan song to the great American cowboy."

Meanwhile, he's working on his tribute to great (and some admittedly not-so-great) American leaders.

The Chief Executives, from George Washington to Bill Clinton, are portrayed at six or seven times life size, and the busts weigh "a bunch," Mr. Adickes says – 7,000 to 9,000 pounds each of polished white concrete and metal armature.

The sculptor doesn't take the easy route by giving the presidents interchangeable Mr. Potato Head ears, either. He has done many months of research and takes pride in getting the details right, including hairstyles, neckties and eyeglasses.

He points out the differences in their physiognomies – how Abraham Lincoln had a longer neck than most men; Woodrow Wilson, a longer face; Lyndon Johnson, longer ears. For variety, Dwight Eisenhower, Ulysses Grant and Andrew Jackson are portrayed in military uniform, though Washington is not.

Visitors to Mr. Adickes' studio in an industrial section of Houston almost invariably are startled by the first, unexpected glimpse of his work. Humongous presidential busts are lined up around the parking lot, with George Bush gazing straight at new arrivals. Theodore Roosevelt is next to Mr. Bush; Grant, Richard Nixon and Harry Truman are just across the way. "Wow!" newcomers repeat, walking around with dazed smiles, necks craned, eyes squinting against the sun. "Man, they're big."

There's an anecdote or an odd, interesting creative detail about nearly every portrait. Mr. Adickes used Cheerios to mold the dots on Benjamin Harrison's cravat, for example. And the carved diamond shapes on Truman's necktie are (as the creator mischievously demonstrates) excellent for scratching an itchy back.

Hey, you've gotta have a sense of humor when you've heard as many "big head" jokes as he has.

Mr. Adickes' interest in outre art statements may stem from his highly eclectic life experience. The Huntsville native has a degree in math and physics from Sam Houston State University, but "anything I know, I learned after college," he says.

He lived in France for eight years and studied with modern master Fernand Leger, whose influence is reflected in his paintings' bright, intense palette and elongated figures.

He has been married twice, but now is single; his daughter, Mary Van Pelt, lives in New York City. Mr. Adickes traveled all over the world, often with his longtime friend, novelist James A. Michener, and their wives. Mr. Michener, a noted art collector, even wrote a privately published 1968 volume titled Adickes. Only 2,000 copies of the full-color art book were printed in Spain, and editions signed by author and subject sell for hundreds of dollars at rare-book dealers.

Like Mr. Michener, Mr. Adickes was always interested in history.

Mr. Adickes' own closest personal connection to the presidency is through his Houston neighbor, Mr. Bush. A decade ago, he sculpted "Winds of Change," the full-length bronze statue of the president that now stands at Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. He has been acquainted with Mr. Bush since 1965, and one of his landscape paintings hung in the Bushes' White House residence (it's now in Houston, in their downstairs powder room). Among Mr. Adickes' favorite memories is the time he spent a night in the Lincoln Bedroom, in 1989.

"In a way, I'm the Bushes' in-house sculptor," Mr. Adickes says with a chuckle. He did a bronze of Neil and Sharon Bush's children some years ago, before daughter Lauren, now a teenager, became a sought-after fashion model. He made a half-life-size bronze of Barbara Bush's famous dog, Millie, for the former first lady's "Millie Room."

And he has studied and photographed the former president's visage from every possible angle, so that "I know every hair on his head," he says. So it is not surprising that the new mega-bust of Mr. Bush is one of his best likenesses.

Mr. Bush also did a good turn for Mr. Adickes earlier this year, when the sculptor found himself at the center of a firestorm over plans to place one of his three presidential sculpture gardens in York County, Va., near Colonial Williamsburg. The proposal for "Presidents Park" created such a local uproar in Williamsburg last spring that the controversy made the pages of People magazine, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

When one critic tagged Mr. Adickes' sculptures as "tacky, tasteless and tawdry," he enlisted support from Mr. Bush, who defended them as "terrific and done in the very best of taste. ... It is absurd and dumb for anyone to call a work by David Adickes tacky, tasteless or tawdry."

Eventually, the hubbub died down, and Mr. Adickes feels vindicated that a Virginia district court ruled his sculpture garden would be classified as an outdoor museum rather than an "amusement park." Now he is forging ahead with plans to place other Presidents Parks in Hot Springs, Ark., and the Black Hills of South Dakota.

But Mr. Adickes isn't stopping there. And if you consider that this is the man who, at age 40, put on a psychedelic light show in Houston (1967's legendary "Love Street Light Circus"), that isn't really surprising.

As he told The New York Times, "I'm thinking of a Cadillac ballet with the cars in tutus, bobbing up and down on hydraulic lifts." Nine Cadillacs, he elaborates, all pink – and a black Jeep tango, and maybe some jousting forklifts. He might exhibit those along with a pavilion full of "art cars," vehicles covered with cameras or Astroturf or plastic toys, whatever. He thinks South Florida might be a possible venue.

Then he wants to do "100 Legends," a group of sculptures of cultural icons ranging from Einstein to Chaplin to Elvis. And then his giant I-35 Texas cowboy....

Oh, it will take some time, of course. He has sketched out a schedule, and he thinks he can do all this by the time he's 78.

In short, David Adickes is not getting more conservative as he gets older. "There's a wild streak in me," he admits, and the leprechaun laughter erupts.

Houston sculptor David Adickes, the creator of the huge Sam Houston statue, is working on a new project to create colossal busts of all the U.S. presidents.