Capitol Idea: Johnny Cash Statue Headed To Washington, D.C.
August 15-21, 2022
By Angelita Faller
UA Little Rock alumnus and famed Arkansas artist Kevin Kresse has spent over a year of his life dedicated to the monumental task of creating an 8-foot-tall statue that will immortalize the life and legacy of country music icon Johnny Cash.
Once complete, this bronze statue will be placed in the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., where statues representing our nation’s best reside for all to see. Kresse, of Little Rock, recently showed off his work while visiting with members of the public July 25-28 at the state-of-the-art Windgate Center of Art + Design at UA Little Rock and was moved by the community’s reaction to his work.
“So many people came through, and it was a very rewarding experience,” Kresse said. “I had some people who got emotional seeing it, and that’s always a good sign in my business. It’s difficult assessing your own work when you are in the middle of it. I’m at a point where I am feeling very happy about the piece.”
Members of the community were fascinated by Kresse’s work. Klansee Tozer, a senior graphic designer at UA Little Rock, said she and her daughter, Lani, were blown away by seeing the clay model of the statue up close.
“Walking in, it was very big, massive is what came to mind,” Tozer said. “Seeing it up close, I could see the texture of the clay and how he worked his magic to form this realistic image of Johnny Cash. It was very breathtaking. I am just impressed by Kresse’s talent, and that Arkansas is being represented by this great UA Little Rock artist.”
Arkansas currently has statues of attorney Uriah Rose and U.S. Sen. and former Gov. James Clarke on display at the U.S. Capitol. Both statues are more than a century old. In 2019, the state legislature approved legislation replacing them with statues of Cash and Daisy Gatson Bates, a renowned civil rights activist. Gov. Asa Hutchinson created the National Statuary Hall Steering Committee to oversee the replacement of the state’s two statues. The committee selected Kresse to create the Cash statue in June 2021.
UA Little Rock also hosted Benjamin Victor, the Idaho artist chosen to create a statue of Daisy Bates for the U.S. Capitol Building, for a weeklong visit in April when he met with members of the public who watched him craft a clay model of the 7-foot-6-inch sculpture in the Windgate Center of Art + Design. Bates will be one of the first Black women to be featured in Statuary Hall. The statue will show Bates in motion with one foot stepping forward, dressed in a business suit while holding a notebook and pen in her right hand and a newspaper in her left hand.
Kresse’s statue represents Cash during the golden age of his career while he starred on “The Johnny Cash Show” that aired on ABC from 1969 to 1971. In the statue, Cash carries a guitar on his back and a Bible in his right hand.
“He was healthy and happy, and it seemed like an appropriate time frame,” Kresse said. “The guitar on the back was an iconic image of Cash. Having the Bible in his hand at his side felt appropriate. His faith was such an integral part of who he was, but he never pushed it on people. I also didn’t realize until I was well into the project that he was actually an ordained minister.”
Michael Warrick, a professor emeritus of art at UA Little Rock who has known Kresse for 30 years, said that Kresse had captured the soul of Cash with his sculpture.
“I think Kevin has an insight into the temperament of the man like no one else,” Warrick said. “Kevin’s captured something of the soul of the man in the facial expression and the body posture and the clothing that he is wearing and the fact that he is holding a Bible and a guitar. His research is phenomenal. I can’t think of a more thoughtful person to take on this project, and I’m very excited for him and that a UA Little Rock alum is doing this.”
Kresse’s clay model of the Cash statue was delivered to the Crucible Bronze Foundry in Norman, Oklahoma, Aug. 8. The foundry employees will review the clay model for technical issues before creating molds for the final bronze statue. State authorities plan to unveil the statues of Cash and Bates during a December ceremony in Washington, D.C.
Cash’s family has also been involved in the creation of the statue, providing Kresse with stories about Cash and feedback on photographs of the sculpture in process. Roseanne Cash, a singer-songwriter and Cash’s oldest daughter, saw the upper part of the statue for the first time on May 6, when she received an honorary doctoral degree from Arkansas State University for her support in preserving the Cash childhood family home.
“The Cash family is happy,” Kresse said. “Whenever I do a posthumous piece, my biggest goal is to make sure the family is happy because they are the ones who know the subject the best. I was able to show Roseanne the bust back two or three months ago. She had an emotional reaction to the piece. That was a very rewarding experience.”
Nicole Stewart, a junior studio art major who is focusing on sculpture, has spent the summer interning with Kresse after meeting him at the 7th Street Mural Project. While already a fan of Cash, Stewart said she’s learned a lot more about his activism and good works during her internship.
“I can definitely say that I have learned a lot more about Johnny Cash by working with Kevin,” Stewart said. “We’ve talked a lot about his activism and his work with prisoners. I like working on something that talks about Johnny Cash and his message and what he stood for. It’s pretty amazing to be a part of documenting someone so important in history that is being immortalized in the nation’s capital. It’s a great honor to work with Kevin on that.”
Arkansas PBS has been following the activities of Kresse and Victor as they create the statues and will run an hour-long documentary on the selection, creation, and installation of the new statues in spring 2023. Additionally, Arkansas PBS will develop classroom-ready resources aligned with state and national academic standards for social studies and arts education for K-12 students to accompany the film.
Once Kresse has completed the Cash sculpture, he plans to get back to work on a series of sculptures honoring influential Arkansas musicians. The project includes busts of Al Green, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Glen Campbell, Louis Jordan, and, of course, Cash.
“The project I was working on before Johnny came up was my own project of doing busts of groundbreaking and influential Arkansas musicians,” Kresse said. “There are so many Arkansas musicians that aren’t being given the recognition they deserve. I was passionate about Arkansas musicians before Johnny’s sculpture came about.”
1. The public was recently invited to view Arkansas sculptor Kevin Kresse working on Johnny Cash sculpture that will be placed in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol with a companion Daisy Bates statue.
2. UA Little Rock alumnus Kevin Kresse works on a clay model of Arkansas music legend Johnny Cash at the Windgate Center of Art + Design from which a bronze statue will be cast. Photo by Ben Crain.
3. UA Little Rock alumnus Kevin Kresse, right, and intern Nicole Stewart, left, a junior studio art major at UA Little Rock, mold and shape the boots of a clay model of Johnny Cash at the Windgate Center of Art + Design. The finished statue will be displayed in Statuary Hall in the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. Photo by Ben Crain.
4. Nationally-recognized sculptor Benjamin Victor was commissioned by the National Statuary Hall Steering Committee and the Arkansas Capitol Arts and Grounds Commission to create a 7-foot-6-inch bronze sculpture of Daisy Gatson Bates, the renowned civil rights activist. Both the Bates and Johnny Cash statues will replace the likenesses of two Arkansas Civil War figures at the U.S. Capitol. Photo by Ben Crain.
5. A bronze sculpture, “The Ground Breaker,” made by UA Little Rock alumnus Kevin Kresse, center, was installed on campus in front of the ETAS Building with help from professor Michael Warrick, left, and Chicago artist Patrick Flemming, right. The sculpture is Kresse’s second installation on the UA Little Rock campus. It was donated by Jack Kinnaman, founder of Kinko Constructors Inc., and installed in 2018. Photo by Ben Crain.