What is it about big heads? All around this grand nation, we see monuments to people in the form of larger than life sculptures. Can we come up with a more subtle metaphor for a person's alleged greatness? Apparently not.
In September 2000, I first set eyes on these works by David Adickes. No experience I have had with The Big Heads will top the day I saw them for the first time. I was visiting Glen Maury Park, in Buena Vista, Virginia, as I do every year for the Rockbridge Mountain Music & Dance Festival. Down in the campground Friday night, amid the sound of fiddles and banjos in the dark, rumors swirled about three giant heads parked on the hill above the park. Although it sounded like a joke, I made plans to go up there the next day. When I reached the top of the hill, their stark and inexplicable presence elicited a reaction to which I'm admittedly prone: I laughed my butt off. The second and third reactions to which I'm prone are to whip out a camera, and later, write about my experience. Thus was born the part of Julie's Tacky Treasures that was originally called "Big Heads in Buena Vista."
Big Heads in Buena Vista
September 20, 2000: Sitting atop one of the Blue Ridge Mountains, looking more like Easter Island than Mount Rushmore, are the giant concrete heads of Abraham Lincoln, William Henry Harrison, and Zachary Taylor. During my annual trip to Buena Vista, Virginia, I was surprised to see these departed heads of state as busts on the hill. None of the other campers in Glen Maury Park knew exactly why they were there, and of course that's where the fun of speculation and rumor-mongering began. "I think all three died in office," said one person. Another said, "I heard someone ordered them made, and then couldn't pay for them." But why are they HERE, I wondered, besides proving that bigger isn't necessarily better.
When I returned home, I raced upstairs to my computer, to fire up the old search engine. The results of my research follow, based on articles retrieved from the Washington Post online archive.
It seems that the owner of a Days Inn in Williamsburg, Virginia named Everette Newman took it upon himself to commission larger than life statues of all 41 presidents, right down to Bill Clinton. The artist, based in Houston, Texas, is named David Adickes, and is apparently known for large, and sometimes controversial public art. He (Newman) requested that seven of the "major" presidents be sized at ten times life size (this includes Lincoln, both Roosevelts, and some others). The "minors" will only be eight times life size. George Washington, however, was to be a full body statue NINETY-TWO FEET HIGH. That's right, and as former county commissioner James Funk pointed out, "We don't have a building that's 92 feet high in York County. The first thing we would have to do is put a lightning rod on his head." Plans for the statue of Washington have since been modified, due to what the Washington Post called "widespread incredulity."
Newman hopes to display them in a 12-acre park he has designed called "President's Park." Apparently, Newman took delivery of the first six heads, which were kind of hard to hide from the York County commissioners, who asked, "what gives?" When Everette told them, they told him he required a permit to publicly display them on his land. They further ordered that no more presidents' heads could be delivered until the matter was straightened out, leaving open the possibility that the permit might be denied. So, Newman parked them on a flat-bed truck outside his motel. The county commissioners considered that a public display and said that the heads had to go. The Norfolk Botanical Gardens now has some of the heads, while the city of Buena Vista now boasts three. There they wait, until the future of the park has been determined.
Newman says all these heads will be educational, and plans to post their biographies by each head. I can't think of anything less intellectually stimulating than looking at a big concrete head, and then reading about it. If the text is as uninspiring as the statues, then I don't see how this "attraction" will attract anyone. And isn't the Williamsburg area already full of tourist traps like Busch Gardens, the pottery factory, and all the outlet stores? How's anyone going to find real history in a place like that? Still, it gave me a chuckle to see these concrete works on the hilltop in Buena Vista, and I kind of hope that they stay there, as a monument to patriotism taken perhaps a little too far. I still don't know why they're in B.V. or why the town wanted them. But maybe, like me, they just didn't like the idea of such dignified men parked on a truck in a motel parking lot.
November 27, 2000: The Big Heads appeared in "Zippy the Pinhead."
February 23, 2001: I visited the Norfolk Botanical Gardens, which is the home of the first six of the presidential heads. They are, left to right, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, Martin Van Buren, and Thomas Jefferson.
September 15, 2001: In what is becoming an annual pilgrimage to the Big Heads, I travelled to Buena Vista, Virginia, to visit my friends, Abe, Zach, and Bill. Bill isn't looking too good, and I think it's a scandal that after only one year, the paint is peeling off his left cheek. Since the statue is a bust, I think you know which cheek I mean. Anyway, how much did Mr. Newman pay for these statues? Whatever he spent, it seems he should have expected a much better grade of exterior latex paint than he got. And I wonder why the statues are still in Buena Vista, and not at the highly-publicized yet ill-fated President's Park in Williamsburg, Virginia? Are the other Big Heads still in Norfolk? If anyone knows, please contact me.
Abe and I had a heart to heart talk while I was there. He's beginning to think of Glen Maury Park as his home, and especially likes the music festival they have there. The sounds of fiddles, banjos, and mandolins drift up the mountain and entertain him. I forgot to ask him what he thought of the recent violence in New York and Washington. I guess I was so much at peace that weekend, that I didn't want to jinx it by bringing it up. Saturday was the first day since 9/11 that I hadn't burst into tears at some point. I wish Abe really could talk. In these worrisome times, we need an inspirational leader; one who speaks from the heart, not the teleprompter.
February 24, 2002: Major News Update on the Big Heads!
Earlier this month, I drove down to Norfolk, Virginia to check on the six Big Heads displayed at the Norfolk Botanical Gardens. I was alarmed to be greeted by the scene to the right.
Actually, this looks worse than it really was. First of all, there clearly wasn't enough rubble to make up even one Big Head. Secondly, this was gray rubble, unlike the bright white of the Big Heads themselves.
I rushed back to the visitors center for an explanation, but all the guy at the front desk could tell me was, "Oh, yeah, they moved them the day before yesterday."
"Where are they? I really need to know," I explained. He had no idea, just that they were gone. On a whim, I asked to speak to someone in the Public Affairs Office. Minutes later, I asked the same question of a sympathetic woman named Kim, who responded, "Oh, they're out back by the greenhouse." She said I was welcome to visit and photograph the Big Heads (or as she called them "the Presidential busts"). According to Kim, there they will stay until the owner takes them away. But where? I wondered.
I was so eager to see my old friends, the Big Heads, that I ran right outside and headed for the greenhouse, aided by a map of the gardens. I didn't even think about what state I might find them in, remembering only the grand display I observed last year.
I found them corralled up closely in a six-pack formation, surrounded
by yellow "caution" tape. What a pathetic way to treat six
of our presidents!
Several days later, I was eating breakfast in a coffee shop in Charlotte, North Carolina, when I read an interesting article in USA Today. Actually, I was so surprised when I saw it that I almost spit out my tea (the other brown drink).
Head of State
When I returned to Silver Spring after two weeks on the road, I searched the Web for information and found a site for Presidents Park. This wealth of information on the Big Heads included an online store from which I have already ordered my tee shirt and tote bag.
While enjoying this delightful web site (which included a game of "Hangman" using the presidents' names), I noticed a picture of Ronald Reagan, already pictured in his location in the park. Didn't I just see Mr. Reagan in Norfolk?
I clicked on a link for more information, and asked the question, "How does this park relate to the one that I heard about that is planned for the Williamsburg area? I saw six of the presidents busts in Norfolk Virginia recently."
In about 24 hours, I received my answer: "The park in South Dakota will be finished in July of 2002, unlike the park in Williamsburg. That park is moving along a lot slower, but the busts are the same. Keep checking our website, presidentspark.com, as we are adding more information in the months to come."Obviously, the saga of the Big Heads continues, and you may rest assured that I will report developments as they happen, or at least as I find out about them.
According to an article in the Washington Post (see links below), developer Everette Newman has received all the permits necessary to open President's Park in Williamsburg, Virginia. The opening is slated for President's Day, 2004.
They're still there, but probably not for long. Local residents have grown attached to them, and vow that they (the heads) aren't going anywhere. That remains to be seen. Here are some photos taken on September 13, 2003.
July 20, 2004
The heads finally have a home in Presidents Park of Williamsburg, Virginia. I visited the Big Heads at Presidents Park in Williamsburg, Virginia, for what I expect will be the last time. Now closely packed in a couple of acres, they lack the mystique they had when they turned up on that hill in Buena Vista for no apparent reason. I'll never forget the affect that they had on me back in September 2000 when I first saw them, looking more like Easter Island monoliths than an homage to Mount Rushmore. Something about the lack of interpretive text about them allowed my imagination to go a little crazy wondering what they were doing there. Perhaps they were left there by aliens trying to communicate with Americans by relating to our obvious predilection for gigantic public art. They might have been left as a college prank by those wacky students at Washington & Lee University, or even local practical joker Mark Cline of the neighboring town of Natural Bridge.
The truth was even more interesting to a self-proclaimed arbiter of bad taste such as myself. In a nutshell, a motel owner in Williamsburg ordered up the heads for a park he planned without applying for the proper permits. The first time that the county commissioners knew of the plans was when a half a dozen or more enormous concrete heads showed up in the motel parking lot on flatbed trucks. I will admit to being amused, and perhaps even charmed, by the naïvete of the motel owner to think that a display of 43 eighteen-foot concrete heads would be welcomed by the local officials. Even after they talked him out of the 92-foot, full-body statue of George Washington, they still balked at an attraction that they deemed inappropriate and "tacky."
I reported periodically about the vicissitudes of nine of these heads, which had to find other homes while the commissioners, the owner, the artist, and likely several lawyers worked out a solution. In the meantime, I received several emails about my story on the Big Heads, including several reports of sightings of dozens of these heads at artist David Adickes headquarters in Houston, Texas. I even received a polite note from an employee of the South Dakota version of Presidents Park (a third park, in Florida, is also being planned). In addition, his girlfriend also wrote to me, urging me to visit South Dakota and see that the park, and the state of South Dakota itself, is not nearly as tacky as I seemed to think. Of course, I plan someday to visit South Dakota. However, I cannot guarantee that I'll come to the conclusion that she expects.
In a nutshell, I found Presidents Park to be dull and uninspiring. It's not just the lack of interaction (all you do is walk around the park and read signs), but I don't think that Adickes' sculpture captures the statesman-like qualities of our greatest Presidents. There is a certain something lacking in the setting that fails to live up to Mount Rushmore or the Lincoln Memorial. George Washington has a garden hose set up behind him, and you can't get a good picture of Abraham Lincoln without that enormous antenna in it.
Most of the likenesses of the Presidents were good enough, but lacked some intangible inspirational quality that other sculptors have been able to capture while Adickes has not. In a couple of cases, the likenesses of the Presidents were off enough to be a distraction. For example, Harry S Truman was easily recognizable. But there's something not quite right about the shape of John F. Kennedy's face. Other the other hand, I think Adickes totally nailed the deer-in-the-headlights in look in the eyes of both George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.
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