Johnny Cash, Daisy Gatson Bates to join National Statuary Hall Collection
The Man in Black is becoming the Man in Bronze. And the only female activist to speak at the 1963 March on Washington will be taking up residence there permanently.
Mr. Cash and Mrs. Bates are going to Washington.
Likenesses of music icon Johnny Cash and civil rights pioneer Daisy Gatson Bates will soon represent Arkansas in the U.S. Capitol National Statuary Hall Collection. Their installation and dedication could take place later this year or next year
Daily, thousands of tourists from around the world view the collection of 100 statues — two contributed by all 50 states — displayed in National Statuary Hall, as well as other designated areas of the Capitol, as the collection has outgrown the hall.
For more than 100 years, Arkansas has been represented by marble statues of Uriah Milton Rose, a prominent Little Rock attorney and the namesake of the Rose Law Firm, and U.S. Senator James Paul Clarke. 4 years ago, the Arkansas General Assembly began discussing a change.
By law, Statuary Hall honorees must be deceased state citizens who were “illustrious for their historic renown or for distinguished civic or military services such as each State may deem to be worthy of this national commemoration.”
State bills were filed in 2019 to replace the statues with both Bates and Cash. There was seemingly no opposition to Bates, the Huttig native who became a civil rights activist, journalist, and mentor to the Little Rock Nine during the Little Rock Desegregation Crisis. But Cash, the Kingsland-born performer with an outlaw image, was more controversial, says Shane Broadway, Arkansas’ National Statuary Hall Steering Committee chairman.
“Daisy Bates was never really talked about; that was kind of a slam dunk,” Broadway says. “There were some (lawmakers) concerned about Johnny’s past. But there were members who talked about how he had redeemed himself, had come back to the Lord, had gone away from the sins of his past, and is a worldwide recognized figure in every hall of fame that exists in music.”
Eventually, the votes were there, and then-Governor Asa Hutchinson signed Act 1068 of 2019 to replace the current statues with likenesses of Cash and Bates.
“This is an extraordinary moment recognizing the contributions of two incredible Arkansans. We want our memories, through our statues, to tell the story of Arkansas,” Hutchinson was quoted as saying at the signing, surrounded by family and friends of Cash and Bates. “I believe our story is well-represented by these two historic figures.”
Arkansas’ National Statuary Hall Steering Committee was formed to work with the Capitol Arts and Grounds Commission, chaired by Secretary of State John Thurston, and the governor’s office on everything from fundraising to selecting sculptors. Broadway, a former state legislator and current vice president for university relations for the Arkansas State University (ASU) System, was a natural fit for the committee, as the university owns the restored Johnny Cash Boyhood Home at Historic Dyess Colony (the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas has been a sponsor) and keeps in close contact with the Cash family.
After the committee issued a request for qualifications, Broadway says, “We had talented artists from all around the country — over 30 for each statue.”
After studying proposals and portfolios and conducting virtual interviews, the committee narrowed it down to three finalists per statute; all had created a maquette or small model of their proposal, and prepared a presentation.
“Their presentations really sold it for both of them,” Broadway says about the artists chosen. “The artist doing Daisy Bates is Benjamin Victor” of Boise, Idaho. “He’s the youngest artist to have a statue in Statuary Hall. And he is the artist who has the most statues in Statuary Hall; this will be his fourth.”
Selected for the Cash statue was Kevin Kresse of Little Rock.
“Obviously all of us had hoped there would be an Arkansan who would get one of the two, but it was not a guarantee,” Broadway says. “We weren’t going to just pick an Arkansas artist just to pick one. Kevin really nailed his presentation.”
It started with Kresse coming in with his maquette under a sheet and discussing his vision. “When he unveiled the maquette, we all looked at each other, like, ‘There’s no doubt that’s Johnny Cash.’”
Beyond what the committee wants, Broadway says, every detail requires approval from the Architect of the U.S. Capitol, which oversees Statuary Hall, and the Joint Committee on the Library, which includes members of Congress. They would have concerns (like the tuning keys on Cash’s guitar being too low to the ground and encouraging tinkering by handsy visitors) that needed addressing. Those steps, plus the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, slowed the project at times. Still, the processes ensure the statues’ excellence and endurance so these life-size works will last a lifetime.
Thurston says, “I’m incredibly proud and thankful of everyone, members of my staff, the members of the steering committee, the Capitol Arts and Grounds Commission and the artists themselves, for all the time, energy and dedication they have invested in this historical process.”
Kevin on Cash
On a January morning, Little Rock artist Kevin Kresse is making a road trip with Johnny Cash. Not with the singer’s music but with his 8-foot likeness that Kresse painstakingly spent more than a year sculpting. The 2 are headed for the Crucible Bronze Foundry in Norman, Oklahoma, for Cash’s casting. While Cash was always known for country, gospel and rock, today he’s going for heavy metal.
Since Kresse’s selection to create the Cash statue, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock alum has been researching, working, fine-tuning, and seeking feedback from those closest to Cash — the first musician to be featured in Statuary Hall.
“His kids have been very helpful,” Kresse says. “No one obviously knew him better than his family. They were the perfect companions to work on this with me.”
The statue of Cash, featuring a Bible in his right hand and a guitar strapped to his back, has been finished and ready for casting for several months. In December 2022, Kresse got the long-awaited approval from Washington, D.C.
Finally having that confirmation, Kresse says, “is a little surreal just because it’s something I’ve been thinking about for so long. It’s exciting because I feel good about the piece. No one’s more critical of your work than you are yourself.
When you step away from the piece for a while, you come in as more of an objective observer, almost like you didn’t do the piece. I was happy with it. It’s saying what I wanted it to say — what I had in my head originally about what I wanted for the emotional feel of the piece.”
Essential to Kresse was capturing Cash’s authenticity.
“I really see him as a hero of the everyday person because I think he was so honest,” Kresse says. “I do a lot of research on the people I sculpt, and the nice thing about him, especially being from Arkansas, was throughout the process, people come up to me and might have a Johnny Cash story. All the stories, all the stones I’ve uncovered through my research and conversation, have been stories of generosity and kindness that no one ever knew about.
“For me, it’s important that if I’m going to be spending two or three years with someone I respect because you’re giving a lot of your life over to this person. And I like him. My love and respect for him has just grown throughout this whole process.”
Benjamin on Bates
Benjamin Victor is the only living sculptor to have three statues — soon to be a fourth — in the National Statuary Hall. (His others include Native American author and activist Sarah Winnemucca of Nevada; agronomist Norman Borlaug of Iowa; and Native American civil rights leader Chief Standing Bear of Nebraska.) He says the thrill has never gotten old.
“Each time I just think, ‘This could be my last time there,’” he says. “Even on the first one, I just thought, ‘I may never get to do this again. This is incredible!’ You’re next to all the greats of figure sculpture. It’s an honor. Each time, I’m floored, and I’m humbled by it.”
Victor says he “couldn’t be more pleased” to be selected to do the sculpture of Bates, the second Black woman in Statuary Hall.
“She was just so courageous. And she changed the course of U.S. history, perhaps even world history because there was a ripple effect from everything that happened in Little Rock. I think she’s the perfect candidate for Statuary Hall because she was amazing during her lifetime. She was the only woman to give an official speech at the 1963 March on Washington along with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and she held leadership positions for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In fact, Dr. King and Thurgood Marshall even visited her home in Little Rock,” Victor says, referring to Bates’ home that is now a national historic site and open to the public for tours. “She was an incredible icon of the civil rights movement and yet not a household name. This project is going to change that.
“She’ll be in the National Statuary Hall where millions of people who visit the U.S. Capitol will learn about her role in the civil rights movement. It’s very gratifying as an artist to get to do something like that and honor someone like Daisy.”
His sculpture of a smiling Bates features her dressed in a business suit with a notepad and pen in her right hand and her newspaper, the Arkansas State Press, cradled in her left arm. Victor explains, “She was a journalist and a publisher and business leader. Those things weren’t easy to be as a Black woman in the 1950s. All of that comes together in a dynamic sculpture. She’s striding forward because she was an activist, and she led the way.”
State of the statues
4 years from the project’s beginning, both statues and their pedestals, are just about ready to make their public appearance.
Broadway says, “I think everybody is going to be excited to see them and very pleased with how these artists have depicted both of these figures in Arkansas history who made such significant contributions.” As for when Bates and Cash will make their D.C. debut, that’s still undecided, Broadway says. Maybe the end of 2023. Maybe in 2024.
That’s up to the Speaker of the House’s office.
“It’s been an amazing process,” Broadway says. And the entire process has been documented in a special for Arkansas PBS that will air at a future time.
Thurston says, “Arkansas is a proud state, and I feel that Johnny Cash and Daisy Gatson Bates represent the best values we hold dear. I’m excited for them to take their places alongside the other great Americans represented in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.”