Hail to the Chiefs

Houston artist David Adickes finds new homes for his massive presidential busts

To this day, no one knows how or why the Easter Islanders built their massive statues. After years of doing nothing but procreating and lugging massive stones around their tiny island, the Moai people overpopulated their paradise, ran out of food and succumbed to cannibalism. All that remains is their mysterious artwork, including about 900 gigantic stone heads. Some say they represent tribal chiefs or important ancestors. Still others believe they were monuments to alien beings that visited Earth centuries ago.

Whatever they were built for, they are no longer the weirdest gargantuan heads in the world. Houston artist David Adickes, he of the 67-foot-tall Sam Houston statue (see "Mr. Big," by Michael Berryhill, December 15, 1994), has taken it upon himself to build three sets of 43 presidential busts for the entire world to enjoy. Or at least for people who really, really like the presidents to enjoy.

The first of Adickes's three presidential theme parks will have its grand opening on Memorial Day, in a 20-acre spread 40 miles north of Mount Rushmore. Relatives and descendants of presidents will join the trek through winding sidewalks lined with 16- to 20-foot, 7,000-pound steel-and-concrete busts of every commander-in-chief from George Washington to George W. Each head is complemented by the appropriate state flag and a placard containing a brief bio. There is also a visitors center, where tourists can buy T-shirts, mugs, hats and miniature presidential sculptures. Through admission proceeds ($5 to $8) and sales of souvenirs and food, Adickes hopes to turn a profit by his third year.

David Adickes got the idea after seeing Mount Rushmore.
Daniel Kramer
David Adickes got the idea after seeing Mount Rushmore.

Adickes has already chosen a spot outside Williamsburg, Virginia, for another park and is now scouring the Florida coast for the third. The 76-year-old Huntsville native is personally financing all three parks with money from commissioned artworks and real estate investments. While best known for building a Sam Houston statue that could kick King Kong's ass, Adickes is also the artist behind The Virtuoso, the enormous cello abutting downtown Houston's Lyric Centre; a big trumpet in Galveston; and a French telephone and half-peeled banana near the intersection of I-10 and I-45.

The history of Adickes's big heads is as tumultuous as the birth of America.

He first got the idea to build the heads after seeing Mount Rushmore for the first time nine years ago. He marveled at the majesty of the supersize skulls, but was disappointed that spectators had to stand so far away. He envisioned a more intimate setting.

Working out of an expansive studio off Summer Street, in the shadow of downtown, Adickes completed the first batch of heads in 1999. Wanting to exhibit his babies as close to Washington, D.C., as possible, Adickes found a prime spot near a Days Inn in Williamsburg. He chose six heads (those of Messrs. Jefferson, Van Buren, Wilson, Hoover, Kennedy and Reagan) to preview, loading them onto three 40-foot flatbed trucks. The Big Six were decapitated for the long haul, their disembodied concrete visages resting beside their torsos.

By the time Adickes got there, the sheriff had changed his mind about letting an outsider deposit a half-dozen huge heads in his corner of the country. The Big Six waited in limbo on the trucks while Adickes figured out his next move.

The story of hopeful, nomadic noggins was too good for the media to pass up. Before Adickes knew it, everyone from Good Morning America to The New York Times wanted to talk to him.

Some reporters joked with Adickes, asking about his sanity. Good-natured and soft-spoken, Adickes understands the ribbing. He says he never had his head examined, adding, "I think most people who know me understand…that I like to do this kind of crap."

Adickes eventually moved the mugs back to Houston, but soon found them a home in South Dakota. The park has been open by appointment for two years, but after Memorial Day, Adickes hopes to snag some of the millions of tourists who visit nearby Mount Rushmore every year. Presidents Park is also located near Deadwood, where Wild Bill Hickok took a bullet in the head during a poker game. The town holds regular re-enactments, drawing a healthy share of visitors who may feel like staring at enormous heads after watching an ersatz murder.

Simply put, the heads are striking. Sure, there's something cool about being able to stick your fist in Grover Cleveland's nostril, but the sculptures offer more than novelty. Adickes pored through hundreds of portraits and photographs to find the best images of each president, taking particular interest in their clothing. Neckties proved especially difficult, evolving from frilly fixtures popular in the days of wooden teeth to Gerald Ford's wide disco-era tie to W's neckwear, which Adickes has decorated with Republican elephants. Adickes uses all kinds of found art to enhance the ties, including Cheerios for Benjamin Harrison's.

"I was about like the average person: I could name ten or so presidents," Adickes says about life before the big heads. But now, Adickes is well versed in the accomplishments of all 43. While most Americans may have never even heard of John Tyler, let alone know that he suffered repeated bouts of dysentery, Adickes got up close and personal with the tenth president, re-creating his beaklike nose and expansive forehead in all their grandeur.

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