5 Star Stories: Johnny Cash statue to represent Ark. in National Statuary Hall Collection

Published: Aug. 2, 2022 at 10:40 PM CDT
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LITTLE ROCK, Miss. (WMC) - The state of Arkansas will soon replace its first two statues to reside in our nation’s capital.

All 50 states are accorded spots for two statues to reside in the National Statuary Hall Collection in Washington, D.C. One of the artists tasked with creating one of those replacements for Arkansas is an Arkansas native who’s won numerous awards and accolades, while also exhibiting his work in New York, Washington, Atlanta and Memphis.

So, this 5 Star Story celebrates the things that make us proud to call the Mid-South home. Kym Clark was invited to Little Rock, Arkansas to visit with that artist as he put the finishing touches on a statue of Mid-South legend Johnny Cash.

North Little Rock is Dogtown Proud and also proud of its native son who created the mural representing that motto.

Artist and sculptor Kevin Kresse is also responsible for a lot of other creative endeavors throughout that town, where his murals adorn many a wall. As well as on the other side of the Arkansas River in the state’s capital city of Little Rock.

“I was a painter for many years and then started sculpting along the way,” explained Kresse.

His sculptures also scatter the landscape throughout the U.S., as well as in hometown gardens and parks. His favorite is one dedicated in 2010 that sits in an Argenta Arts District pocket park.

“The Mother Earth Fountain is still one of my favorite pieces. I’ve seen two weddings take place there. They had a blessings of the animals event there and this woman came up to me and she said, ‘Did you do that Mother Earth Fountain?’ And I said, ‘Yes,’ and she said, ‘I have to tell you my daughter and I, we go there to pray every week,” Kresse said.

The 60-year-old’s full-figure statue of World War II hero, General and Rangers leader, William O. Darby, sits atop a sculpted motorcycle in Darby’s Fort Smith hometown. While a bust of former Lt. Governor Win Paul Rockefeller sits outside his former office near the marble steps of the Senate chambers in the state capitol building.

“I knew that the other people in the House and Senate would be going down those stairs so I wanted him looking up to where he would in a sense be looking at them when they’re coming down the stairs,” said Kresse. “To me, Win Paul was the epitome of a public servant as opposed to a politician ... and I hope when he’s looking at you, you’ll keep that in mind.”

Kresse is working on what he called “the biggest thing that’s happened” in his career and not just because it’s 8 feet tall.

The statue of Dyess native Johnny Cash will soon become part of the National Statuary Hall Collection in Washington, D.C.

“And I think my son, he’ll be a senior in high school, and he’s wonderful, so I’ll have him help me on some things. And it hit me one time and I thought, ‘Oh, God.’ He could be with his kids or grandkids saying, ‘Your great grandfather and I helped do the boots,’ or whatever. I mean it does hit me like that sometimes like this is a big deal,” Kresse mused.

Kresse won the commission out of a pool of 35 sculptors from around the country. But for him, it’s kismet. He’d already created busts of several other Arkansas Delta artists, like Levon Helm from Elaine, Sister Rosetta Tharpe of Cotton Plant, Al Green born in Forrest City, and Billstown native Glen Campbell.

“And, once it was announced that Johnny was one of the two, I just sort of felt like it was destiny,” he explained.

The full-scale Johnny Cash creation actually began in miniature.

“I had done the three-foot full figure model then this was enlarged in foam in segments and that’s what’s the armature so it’s light for me to transport it and then I can make modifications just with a knife,” Kresse explained.

Then Kresse cut the eight-foot foam armature into pieces, painted it with oil-based clay heated up to a liquid, and then.

“I get warm clay to articulate the folds or any details,” he described. “I would have just like the head at home and I would be working and then it would bother me and I would just rip off the hair, go all the way back down to the skull and go back again. And then I did it again.”

For Kresse, “it’s the alchemy of clay” that draws him to sculpting.

”A clump of clay turning into something that can carry a powerful emotion in it and then, there’ll be a time when I’m opening the eyes and working on it. And then all of a sudden it’s like they sort of open their eyes and they look at you! And you kind of you’re like, ‘Wow!’ It never fails to give me a thrill,” Kresse exclaimed.

After that painstaking two-year process, Kresse moved into the Windgate Center of Art + Design building on the University of Arkansas-Little Rock campus to reassemble the statue and refine it even more.

“I’m feeling great about it now. If you had interviewed me a week ago, you’d have found a basket case,” he chuckled.

Kresse plans to add the guitar to Johnny’s back soon and then, it will be time to cut the statue into pieces once again.

“And take him to Norman, Oklahoma to the Crucible Art Foundry and then the process -- we’ll put him all back together again and then they go over it with a fine tooth comb looking at it for casting with a casting eye,” he explained.

After that, Kresse said the casting company will then take it all apart yet again, cast it in bronze and weld it back together a final time. The statue will stand 11 feet tall on its pedestal which includes a quote from Johnny Cash, given to Kresse by Cash’s daughters that reads: All your life you will be faced with a choice, you can choose love or hate. I choose love.”

As for the story Kresse created for this piece, “You know, they would have the Johnny Cash Heritage Festival in Dyess every year. And so, they set up a stage next to Boyhood Home. So, in my mind, Johnny’s coming to play the festival next to his home. He’s gone through the house since the first time it’s been refinished. He’s reliving those memories. He’s come out on the porch and he’s at that moment where he kind of stops and he’s looking down and he’s just reviewing his life for a minute about what brought him to the point .before he walks off to play. So, that’s why he has the guitar. He has a Bible,” said Kresse.

The “Man in Black’s” Mid-South legacy is being sculpted into our nation’s history.

The statues that will be replaced in Statuary Hall are of Uriah Rose, founder and president of Arkansas and American Bar Associations and James Paul Clarke, Arkansas’ 18 governor.

The other replacement statue will be of Daisy Bates, a Civil Rights activist and newspaper publisher who played a leading role in the Little Rock Integration Crisis of 1957.

Kevin Kresse said Gov. Asa Hutchinson hopes to hold the unveiling of the two statues at the National Statuary Hall in December 2022.

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