Obama Bronze Joining Downtown Presidents
President Obama is coming to Rapid City in July—kind of! A life-sized statue of the former president will join 42 other bronze sculptures of presidents downtown. It’s been almost nine years since a new one was added to the city, and the details of Obama’s likeness are a secret until it’s unveiled soon.
The statues are part of a project called The City of Presidents. Every former president is represented along two of the city’s main downtown streets. It’s become a tourist attraction in the area. But it all began in 1999 when two people got an idea.
“Our byline was ‘well you’ve been to the mountain to see four. Now come to Rapid City and see them all.’”
Dallerie Davis is a Cofounder and the Artist Liaison. She says the project ties Rapid City to the Mount Rushmore National Monument, just 24 miles away. She was helping local artists like John Lopez find commissioned work when the idea came up.
“I was actively looking for some projects for an artist I was with at that time at the dinner, John Lopez. And I saw Don across the way and I said to John, ‘would you like to do presidents?’ and he said ‘Oh, no I don’t think so.’ But at any rate I went and talked to Don and said ‘we can make this happen.’ and we did.”
John Lopez and three other South Dakota artists agreed to do the sculptures. They were initially paid 50 thousand dollars per statue for supplies and their time. That amount has gone up. Each artist had one assignment at a time and had to complete their statue working on a rigorous schedule. In 2000, their first four pieces became permanent additions to Rapid City.
“We decided that it would be more interesting if we started at the beginning and the end of the presidency and it also gave us a more interesting mix of appearance. Very old fashioned, more modern. And so the first two to be unveiled were George Washington and John Adams and then we did George Bush and Ronald Regan.”
After that, the same artists worked on statues of the rest. All 42 presidents were installed on two main downtown streets by 2010. Davis says the only rule was that they wouldn’t create a sitting president...which did cause some controversy. Davis says they were sued early on because President Clinton was not in the first group.
“There were some people who were offended because they didn’t like the fact that the first two guys on the street were republicans. And it was not a political ploy, that was just the way the cards fell.”
Davis says the statues are not meant to make any political statements. Both republicans and democrats are included in series, and even President Nixon-the only person to resign the office-has a statue.
“Quite honestly, there are a lot of us on the project who don’t even like politics, I being one of them. I love history. So this is certainly not a political kind of program.”
Artists dig into the history of each president, trying to find an interesting detail to incorporate into their statue. There are violins, children, dogs and cowboy hats that add a little personality.
Older presidents can be difficult to research because it’s harder to find photos and stories. Davis says she asked the artists for a list of presidents they wanted to work on, but some had to be assigned.
“There were a certain number of presidents that was on nobody’s list and one of those was Millard Fillmore. So we kept joking that if you’re not good you’re going to get Millard Fillmore.”
A new artist joined the team around the time Millard Filmore was on the list and took the assignment. James Van Nuys says he was happy for the opportunity. He’s created four of the downtown statues.
“Millard Fillmore was the first life sized statue that I had done. I had worked in foundries over the years so I was pretty familiar with the process, but it was definitely a learning process.”
Filmore’s bronze is seated in a chair in old timey clothes, marking a page in a book with his finger. Although this pose is casual, the process is involved.
First the artist sculpts a clay model of their idea that’s about a third the size of the final piece. That clay model becomes a silicone mold and is sent off to be filled with bronze. The board of The City of Presidents gives the okay, or makes suggestions. Then the process is repeated for the final sculpture.
Van Nuys also worked on the statue of President Obama. He says it took some time to come up with a concept.
“You know I really knocked myself out on this one and I wanted it to be the best one since it’s probably the last one that I’ll get to do. And I have learned a lot over the years. Having done the other three and done numerous other monuments, I'm in a better position to do something more interesting than I was ten years ago.”
When Van Nuys started the Obama statue, all 42 others were already in place. Since he was the only artist creating a new bronze this time, he didn't have strict time constraints. That freedom allowed him to make bigger modifications.
Van Nuys won’t spoil the details before the unveiling later this month, but he says the original concept was just Obama smiling and waving.
“I didn’t want that to be my best piece that I put out there so I came up with a different concept, modified it and came up with something that I was happier with.”
Van Nuys is happy to work on this statue because Obama’s presidency is so fresh for people. He says no matter a person’s political stance—Obama did have an effect on recent history.
“I am excited to unveil it just because it’s a piece of work that I did my best on and I’m proud of it and I’ll be excited for people to see it.”
Every summer, tourists flock to the statues, posing for photos and selfies. Ron and Alice Smith are visiting from North Carolina. The couple made a trip to Mount Rushmore and the Founding Fathers museum. Ron Smith says this is another stop on their history tour.
“I think it’s a very neat idea. At a time where we live and where we don't look to the past very much, it’s a reminder of the past and where these people came from and what they did with their lives.”
Alice Smith was excited to see George Washington and George W. Bush.
Alice Smith: “They seem to be very well done as far as detail.”
Ron Smith: “Yeah the details very good.”
Alice Smith: “Yeah, it was very exciting.”
Ron Smith: “It was more than I expected it to be.”
Maps with information on the presidents are provided by Visit Rapid City. Julie Schmitz Jensen is the president and CEO of the tourism group.
“We work daily with The City of Presidents Organization to make sure that visitors, even before they get here, are aware of how many presidents we have on every corner.”
Jensen says they use the presidents as a marketing tool—advertising to tour busses, individuals and journalists across the country.
“I think President Obama is probably going to be just one of our favorites just because of his big smile he has.”
She says it’s a good way to bring tourists interested in Mount Rushmore to Rapid City...and political perspectives don’t have to affect the way people view the public art.
“You don’t have to agree with every president that has lead our country. This is about really honoring the men that have—men, unfortunately there’s no women yet—who have led our country. And sometimes you're going to agree with them and sometimes you’re not. But they were our president so they deserve that respect.”
The President Obama sculpture will be unveiled on July 13th, and installed downtown the following week.