Mr. Big

Houston sculptor David Adickes has one message for the art world: large is good

On a windy day in early November, Houston sculptor David Adickes is watching a handful of loyal volunteers from the city of Huntsville put the finishing touches to his mammoth memorial to Sam Houston that this fall, after three years of work, he was finally able to present to the community. Perched at the end of an extension ladder mounted on a fire truck, the Huntsville city manager is calmly patching a hole under the statue's left hand while wasps circle his head. Other volunteers are unifying the color of the work's concrete surface. Soon, Richard Fisher, intent on doing good deeds in the last days of his doomed campaign for the U.S. Senate, is scheduled to work for an hour on the piece. Carpenters are busily building an expensive visitors center at the sculpture's parking lot.

Standing before the ten-foot-high base of the 67-foot-tall concrete-and-steel tribute to Texas' greatest hero is Adickes, a short, plump, energetic man wearing a glen plaid shirt streaked with white slurry and a souvenir ball cap with his sculpture on it. He's swollen with pleasure. Just a week or so earlier, when the statue was officially dedicated before several thousand onlookers, the artist had wept unashamedly. "I did not expect that kind of adulation," he explains. For good reason. Adickes has found such adulation hard to come by, at least from an art world that disdains his sentimental patriotism, that sneers at his concrete sculptures as witless cartoon. But if the art crowd raises a disapproving eyebrow in Adickes' direction, he simply directs a disapproving look right back. Adickes considers the art world to be little more than a hypocritical club, one populated with artists who are supposed to look poor whether they are or not; one in which members search for customers even as they claim to be not the least bit interested in money, but only in what they have to say.

"What I am trying to prove," declares Adickes, "is the same thing Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, the creator of the Statue of Liberty, was trying to prove: think big, do it right, people will come. Today, 108 years later, the Statue of Liberty is an icon. Two million people take a boat to visit it every year .... Two years after Bartholdi, Gustave Eiffel built a tower in Paris. Vehemently criticized, it later became the symbol of France, the icon to end them all. Incidentally, the Eiffel Tower is still owned, not by the city of Paris, nor the Republic of France, but by the descendants of the Eiffel family, who daily collect tremendous profits from ticket sales."

Bartholdi, Eiffel and ... Adickes? He is no more ashamed of putting himself in their company than he is ashamed of making money. It is the very grandiosity of these creators that inspires Adickes. He likes to point out that Big Sam, as his statue is familiarly called, can be seen from as far away as six miles south of Huntsville, even if at that distance it does look a bit like an upended grain of rice. Still, Big Sam is there, and the closer you come the more there he is, until finally he looms up, a full head taller than the surrounding pines, carrying a 32-foot-long cane and looking as if he'd just emerged from a walk in the woods.

Even before the granite facing of the base had been adorned with bronze letters spelling Houston's name, Adickes says, everybody knew who it was. The statue, he claims, will serve as an unforgettable trademark for the town in which he was raised, bringing to mind Huntsville much as the Golden Gate Bridge brings to mind San Francisco. And there is money to be made from this trademark.

Every day, approximately 45,000 cars drive by Huntsville on the way to Houston or Dallas or points between. Huntsville's chamber of commerce officials figure if just one percent of those cars are taken by Big Sam and stop a while, and if the passengers in each car spend just $10, in a year's time the city will rake in $1 million worth of new business. Big Sam is a big project, predicted to draw big numbers of people and make big money. All of which is fine with David Adickes, who may be Texas' leading advocate of the notion that in art, bigger is better.

Last summer, Adickes drove several thousand miles across the country to visit other large works, and is now proud to announce that his Sam Houston is the largest freestanding sculpture of an American hero to be found in the United States. You say the Statue of Liberty is more than twice as tall? Well, yes, but it represents a mythical figure. The gigantic heads of four presidents at Mount Rushmore? They're not freestanding. Christ of the Ozarks in Eureka Springs, Arkansas? Our Lady of the Rockies in Butte, Montana? Adickes has visited them both and, true, they're taller, but they're religious sculptures done in a naive or primitive style by amateur craftsmen.

No, if you want to put Adickes' ambition into context, you have to look outside the United States to the Russian city of Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad), where he once made a pilgrimage to see the biggest freestanding sculpture in the world, a 1967 concrete construction of a mythical, sword-waving woman called "Motherland." When Adickes talks about doing more sculptures, he does not emphasize making his next sculpture more beautiful, more thoughtful or more refined. He talks about making it bigger. He talks about an Alabama philanthropist who's interested in a piece about the heft of Big Sam, an Arab sheik who's considering a 100-foot-tall sculpture of himself riding a horse. But most of all, Adickes talks about building somewhere in Texas, possibly as part of a theme park, a sculpture of a cowboy 280 feet high that will cost in the range of $5 million. He's already built a 28-inch-high model. All he has to do is expand it by a factor of 100. Why 280 feet?

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