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Mt. Rushmore, only closer

David Adickes' giant busts of presidents bring viewers within range. In Virginia, his outdoor museum also brings controversy.

September 10, 2004|Sarah Richards | Special to The Times

Texas artist David Adickes will tell you himself that it's massive size, more than artistic vision, that distinguishes his statues of American presidents. Paeans to history in concrete and steel, the 18- to 20-foot-tall busts fill two outdoor museums dedicated to education and civic responsibility, but they're bringing their creator no small measure of notoriety.

Not everyone, it seems, appreciates a reinterpretation of Mt. Rushmore.

"I have a plastic pencil sharpener with George Washington's head on it," says Ivor Noel Hume, a former head of archeology at Colonial Williamsburg. "I just sort of feel it's the plastic head, blown up."

The idea for creating a series of presidential sculpture parks came to Adickes after a 1994 visit to South Dakota.

"I'd always wanted to see it, but you couldn't get close to it," Adickes says of Mt. Rushmore. "You don't get an intimate feeling; you look at it through binoculars a half-mile away."

So Adickes, 77, decided to reinterpret the place: Rather than four faces, he would sculpt the heads of all the American presidents. And instead of placing the leaders at a distance, he would bring visitors up close -- so close, they could look up Jimmy Carter's nostril.

Adickes' first park opened with little fanfare in August 2003, near Lead, S.D., about 40 miles from Mt. Rushmore.

But in Virginia, where a second park was built a few miles from Colonial Williamsburg, it was a different story.

In 2000, when Ronald Reagan, Thomas Jefferson and four other heads rolled into the area on Adickes' flatbed truck, York County officials secured an injunction that barred the sculptures from being unloaded. Work was delayed for months while the two sides wrangled, until a judge ruled that the park could be built. It opened in March of this year.

Tim Andrews, director of public relations at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, says the opposition stemmed from concern that the statues would clash with the ambience of the historical area.

"We raised questions at the time whether these sculptures, particularly in their large scope, were aesthetically the right fit for Williamsburg and whether they properly represented the emphasis that we have in Williamsburg on historical authenticity," Andrews says.

Nonsense, says Everette Newman III, a partner with Adickes in the Williamsburg park and president of FCR Group, a commercial real estate development company in Williamsburg. "Those people who objected did so for two reasons," he says. "They were all trying to protect the gem of the historic triangle -- Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown, Yorktown. Secondly, none of them had seen one of the monuments in a finished state."

Adickes says that "some of the people would still like to be wearing three-cornered hats and drinking beer out of pewter mugs.... They'd rather still be colonists."

Even so, more than 10,000 people visited the Williamsburg park in its first 60 days, and Newman says he hopes to pull in 200,000 by the end of the year. Adickes says the South Dakota park is "going slowly" but that he hopes to break even there soon. (Both parks charge admission: from $6 for kids to $9 for adults at the Virginia facility.)

Separated by size

At Adickes' studio warehouse near downtown Houston, workers are busy using chain saws to carve cheeks and jaws on the latest batch of statues. The heads are made of a concrete mix shaped in a mold and mounted on a rugged steel frame. Each takes roughly five weeks to create and weighs, on average, 7,000 pounds.

Adickes acknowledges that the faces on their own are not artistic feats.

"Almost any good sculptor could have done these; there's no particular interpretation," he says. "But there are not many people who could have done them big, and I think that's where I'm different."

Big. It's not just an adjective but a state of mind in Texas, where Adickes was born. Houstonians are accustomed to seeing his colossal statues downtown and along state highways. A towering 76-foot-high Sam Houston beside the highway in Huntsville is probably Adickes' best known work, although "Virtuoso," an enormous cellist in front of the Lyric Business Centre in downtown Houston, also is well known.

"His work comes from an ancient genre of very large-scale commemorative sculpture," says Sara Kellner, director of DiverseWorks, a Houston arts center.

Adickes studied art in France after serving in World War II, then returned to Texas in 1950 and began selling his paintings in local galleries. His work also has been displayed at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston.

But it was investments, in stocks and real estate, he says, that helped buy his warehouse studio. More recently, he has purchased land in the Houston area on which he plans to erect more statues, including a giant abstract sculpture of the Beatles planned for an area along Interstate 10.

"That's Paul, John, Ringo ... George," he says, pointing to a sketch on a work table. "I don't like any other rock and roll bands, really."

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