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Sculptor Discusses Inspiration In Making Johnny Cash Statue For U.S. Capitol

Artist Kevin Kresse with a prototype of the statue he is making to eventually be on display in the U.S. Capitol.
Kevin Kresse

Artist Kevin Kresse, who was selected by the state earlier this month to create a statue of Johnny Cash, which will be one of two representing Arkansas in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol, spoke with KUAR about his appreciation of Cash and what inspired him in this project.

A statue of civil rights leader Daisy Bates, best known for her work with the Little Rock Nine desegregating Central High School, will also eventually be on display. That one is being created by Benjamin Victor of Boise, Idaho.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who signed legislation into law replacing the current statues, praised the artists in this past weekend’s radio address, saying “you see in Mr. Cash’s face a hint of the hard life he live.”

He also noted the state now needs to raise the final $300,000 to pay the artists, and for the delivery and installations of the new statues, and the return of the previous statues of attorney U.M. Rose former Gov. James Paul Clarke to Arkansas.

Kresse joined KUAR's Michael Hibblen during the first hour of Saturday’s program Not Necessarily Nashville to talk about his admiration of Cash, how he has gone about making a prototype of the statue, and to play some of his favorite Cash songs.

Below are edited highlights from the interview.

Tell me how you came to do this. This has been a process ongoing for a couple of years. The legislature, in what seemed like a longshot idea, eventually decided to replace Arkansas’ two statues there in Washington and approved Daisy Bates, the civil rights icon here in Little Rock, and Johnny Cash, just the immeasurable musical pioneer.

And I think what’s interesting as well, is the fact that I really see it as the legislature voting in two social activists to represent Arkansas, which I thought was really a beautiful statement. So, I mean, everyone knows Johnny's musical legacy, but he was so much more and that's really what I was trying to focus on in the sculpture.

Why don't you describe the statue visually for people who maybe haven't seen the picture?

Well, let me start by saying, yeah, this has been going on for two years. So, my original poses that I was starting off depicted more of a public Johnny Cash. And the longer I kept working on it, and the more books I read, and the more DVDs I watched and everything, the more I really started moving towards more of a self-reflective interior Johnny.

So this pose, his weight is on his back foot. He's looking down and he's in thought. I've got his Bible in his right hand, but it's sort of tucked away. It's not that incredibly noticeable. And then I said, I like the idea that his guitar is on his back. So, the guitar strap really kind of starts from the Bible, which is the faith, which is something that, you know, he was in deep, dark places and that's what he always went to his whole life. And as it goes up through his left hand, that's over his chest, I said that's, you know, where the soul of everything came from, from the poet and the musician to the back where the guitar is, which I saw as like a backpack that took him all over the world. So that's it in shorthand.

Really, I’m proud of what Arkansas has done by embracing Johnny Cash. Some view him as kind of a dark character, but the family seems to really appreciate how Arkansas has taken this in.

Yeah. Like I said, Johnny is—some people want to pick out one part of him to define him and he was so much, and I think that's why he has broad appeal. I was talking to a friend about how the gospel community claims him as his own. I mean, he was wanting to do gospel music back when he was at Sun Records. You know, obviously the Country Music Hall of Fame, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and I said if there was a punk hall of fame, he would be the first one in the punk hall of fame. I really kind of think he had the first punk band. So, yeah,

Was the family—did they give guidance, as far as did they make suggestions about how they would like this statue to look?

Well, interesting. Yes, a couple of little things. And fortunately for me, like I said, I had worked on an earlier younger version of Johnny on my own before the D.C. project even came up. But when I was thinking about this one, I was kind of thinking, yeah, it'll probably be more the TV show Johnny, where he kind of had more of this mass appeal and everyone was seen at that time. So, I was thinking that kind of early ‘70s when I was thinking about the DC project early on. And then later the family said that that was the time frame they were looking at. So, I thought, OK, great, I'm on that one.

And then I had all three finalists. We had a meeting with the search committee I can remember a couple of months ago and it was really like the night or two before I'd been working on this pose. And I had the Bible on the one hand and the other hand, I just wasn't sure what to do with it, and I found this picture where that hand was through the guitar strap on his chest. And then at that meeting, they [the Cash family] had sent that photo and I went, oh, wow, OK. So I was really just a day or two ahead of seeing them say that they kind of like that.

So, you've made a smaller bust. Where are you right now in the process? You were selected officially a few weeks ago. So where are you actually in the process of making this?

So I have a three-feet tall, full figured version at the house and then I have a life and a quarter bust, which is in a sense is a blown up version of the head of the three foot four figure. So right now, I think there's just some tweaking I want to do on the figure after I keep living with it and looking at it. You keep seeing things that kind of bug you. Nothing huge. And then I'm just going to take 360 photos and do the same with the bust and then make sure that the Cash family gets those and sees them. If there's any changes or anything that they see, they want me to work on, then I'll do that. And then the next step would be to take it to the foundry and have it enlarged.

And have you talked directly with Johnny’s siblings or [daughter] Rosanne [Cash]?

Since I received the commission, the only one I've talked with is [daughter] Tara, and actually we were born two days apart, so we're the same age. And evidently the family's been—was really, really pleased. That's all that made me feel great.

You told the story [during the meeting of the U.S. Statuary Hall Steering Committee and the Arkansas Capitol Arts and Grounds Commission] of what you wanted to envision here or what inspired you, and you talked in particular about his childhood up in Dyess.

Yeah, I'm not sure what the other two artists talked about, because I haven't seen their presentations, but I was really wanting to talk about his motivating factors in his life. And I think obviously the big one was when he lost his hero brother Jack, in that awful sawmill accident and then his father...

...Saying that it should have been you.

...It should have been you instead of him. And that's like I said, I mean, there's no way to get over something like that. And I think he was always trying to prove himself to his father as well.

And so, all these are little things that as an artist, I'm keeping that in mind. And so when he has his self-reflective look, it's all in the face. And so, these are really subtle things. Once you kind of get the anatomy down you say, OK, so I can look and say, that's Johnny Cash, then you're going down to the next step in trying to get that soul in it. And these are the huge parts that are in there that need to be in there.

You were planning to make a statue of Johnny Cash long before the legislature actually decided to change the two statues that represent the state up in Washington. Talk about you and Arkansas musicians.

So, this all started four or five years ago when I received the commission to do the bust of Levon Helm for his childhood home in Marvel. And of course, he's from the suburb of Marvel in Turkey Scratch. But that's where his home is. So when I did that, I was talking to the people in Marvel, and they said at this point his home wasn't open for visitors yet and they would find people from New Zealand, Japan, all over Europe on his porch. They had come to Marvel just to see where he grew up.

And it really hit me as I started thinking about the incredible A-list of talent that Arkansas, especially the Delta area. You had Johnny Cash, Al Green, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Louis Jordan, Charlie Rich. Goodness, Conway Twitty, Big Bill Broonzy. It goes on and on and on. You have Glen Campbell over in Delight.

So anyway, I thought I'm a frustrated musician, I'm a songwriter and everything, so it's a real passion of mine. So, I just started on my own creating the bust of these people with the idea of hopefully finding funding and getting them to the hometowns of the different musicians. So yeah, I had started on Johnny probably, I don't know, four years ago, I guess, or something like that, doing a younger version of Johnny for the hometown in mind of Dyess.

Yeah, I think Stephen Koch host of Arkansongs, wrote at the beginning of his book on Louis Jordan that he as a kid would wonder, well, where's the statue in Brinkley? And there is no statue.

No. And in so many of these little towns, there's no markers, there's no indication. I was taking my son to Tennessee a summer or two ago and was in Forrest City and I can't remember what he had forgotten. And so we pulled into the Walmart there and all the people that were helping me were wonderful. And I said, “Who's the most famous person from Forrest City?” And I said, “Al Green.” And they said, “No, he's not from here.” And they even went and got the manager who was, I mean, these weren’t like 18-year-olds, they were in their 30s. And they got the manager who was around 50. And he said, “No, that's not right.” And I was like, oh, man, we have a big problem here. And the list goes on and on and on.

You mentioned during your presentation a few weeks ago at the Capitol, the impact on you of him doing these shows in prisons, but also behind the scenes without recognition or without doing it publicly. The activism that he did, there paying to build chapels, things like that.

Right. That he had donated money to both Tucker [Prison] and Cummins [Prison] to build chapels. And the point I was making then, too, was that, obviously this was before social media. So he wasn't taking selfies and, you know, hashtag Johnny do gooder, you know, or here I am hanging out with the Native Americans on the reservation doing this work there. These were things that were just in his core and that he believed in and he just did it quietly.

Yeah, it really was amazing. I just can't imagine trying to hold the attention and perform in a prison, and yet he’s got the presence to do it. And the Native American work too, at a time when the Native Americans really weren't getting that much respect, he kind of put himself on the line with that, not to quote his song, but he really did stick his neck out.

And that's one thing that hit me when I was going back and I was looking because his album Bitter Tears, that the whole thing was focused around the Native Americans, the whole album. And I realized that was put out in 1964. And that's probably the time when stereotypes about Native Americans were rampant in our culture. And then I realized, too, the great Arkansas author, Dee Brown, his seminal book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee came out in 1970, which really kind of started to shift ideas and opinions about Native Americans. But he had put that [album] out about six years previous to that.

You mentioned that you have gone around Statuary Hall and you looked at the different statues on display there. What did you think about what you saw?

Well, the quality of the work is beautiful, but obviously you're running into a lot of old Confederate people. I mean, there's some problematic people that are being heralded in the halls of our Capitol. So that's why I was happy to see that so many states are moving now to change theirs out. And like I said, I'm just really proud that Arkansas is putting two social activists to represent Arkansas.

Johnny Cash from the American Recordings album he did with Rick Rubin in 1994 was really amazing. The fact that Johnny Cash had a final blast in his career, thanks to Rick Rubin and his production.

Yeah, and he was still writing and still putting out just beautiful work. It was as if his tap was still on and flowing. It was a real inspiration to me.

We were talking just about how you’ve kind of listened to Johnny Cash, especially there in his later years. Tell me about that.

Yeah, the thing about that was consistent with Johnny throughout his whole career, I believe, was just the honest, straightforward way that he put things out. And then towards the end, when his health was failing and you can really hear it in his voice that he's still giving it everything he has—it adds even, I think, an extra depth of emotion to his work. That to me just gets me to my core. It's just, I think that's the epitome of what art is and how it can affect someone is all right there in those albums.

And the documentaries about, especially the low points of his career, when not only was he not selling albums, but one documentary talked about how he couldn't even really fill up a city park. I think he appreciated the fact that he was being appreciated as an artist toward the end and really wanted to give it everything he could.

Yeah. And I think that's the thing we were talking about earlier was that, you know, in his probably mid-50s, he was still out there plugging. He was still doing it, even though maybe the people weren't showing up, he was still delivering, not knowing that right around the corner, some of his most powerful and his most emotional work was ahead of him. And like I said, as someone in their late 50s, as an artist, that's incredibly inspiring to me.

Have people reached out to you since either you were in the finalists to make the statue or since being selected? What’s been the response for you?

It’s been overwhelming. I’m not a huge social media person. In fact, when I was first chosen as one of the three finalists, I didn’t even post anything about it just because I just wanted to quietly get to work. So the night before the presentations I just kind of put out a thing that said ‘Hey I’m doing this thing tomorrow and it will be streamed if you care to watch it.’ And the response from that was just—took me by surprise. And it really was so comforting, as I went in, to know that so many people were cheering for me. And then quickly putting something together that afternoon, after I had won the commission, the response from all the people around Arkansas was just tremendous, but then around the world. I think before my biggest post, as far as people sharing the post, was maybe 20 or 30 or something. And this one, I think, is close to something like 800 shares.

But you were the only Arkansas artist to make it to the final round.

Yes. And that was, you know, I'm not going to lie. I felt quite a bit of a responsibility to kind of represent Arkansas and to say there's world class art that's produced here. I know so many incredible artists, visual artists, as well as musicians and other art forms. But, yeah, it was my chance to say I got to show up and prove that we can do it.

Is there a timeline for when this statue will be completed and what's the next step in this process?

The only timeline, really, is that I know that Gov. Hutchison wants it installed before he leaves office. So that's really the end of ’22, and so that won't be a problem for me.

Have you talked much with him about this? Did you meet with him?

No, he wasn't there the day we were doing the presentations, or at least I didn't see him. But he's always been super nice to me and supportive, both he and his wife. So, I think I'm looking forward to talking to him about it and showing what I've got going on and keeping him abreast of what's happening. But we were mainly dealing with the Secretary of State's office.

It has been interesting seeing Hutchinson, during when he had Rosanne Cash in the Governor's Mansion doing a fundraiser back, I think 2015 or ‘16 for the house in Dyess. He’s a Johnny Cash fan, which it's just funny when it's the governor, former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration and Homeland Security, but Johnny Cash connects with so many people in so many different ways that he's truly unique in that way.

And he definitely spans the demographics, that's for sure. So, yeah, it's incredible how many different people love him.

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