May 17, 2004
Let's hear it for large concrete statues!

Nice article in the Sunday Chron on David Adickes, the sculptor who created all those giant Presidential heads as well as the humongo Sam Houston statue in Huntsville. The good news, if you're not a hoity-toity art critic, is that he's got big concrete plans for Houston's highways.

[B]eginning this summer he plans to erect a string of giant concrete artworks along Interstate 10 to combat the city's notorious billboard blight.

Among them will be a cluster of 30-foot-tall cubist statues of the Beatles on a 4,800-square-foot site he owns just east of the freeway's intersection with Shepherd Drive.

Others will include the heads of Sam Houston and two U.S. presidents, an upturned hand supporting the word "ART" and a statue of silent-screen comic Charlie Chaplin.

"My hope is this will lend a certain panache to Houston," Adickes says. "The endless road through Houston is filled with a lot of junk on both ends. This will offer a little relief."

In Houston's art world, though, Adickes' plans -- meant to be a grand artistic statement from a sculptor in his twilight years -- have met with a chilly reception.

"Who gave him the right to do this?" sputters longtime cultural critic Ann Holmes, who is writing a history of Houston's fine-arts scene for Texas A&M University Press. "It's like putting Mount Rushmore on Main Street. Large works like this intrude on your life. You can't ignore them."

For critic Susie Kalil, Adickes' statues fall far short of Rushmore's grandeur.

"They don't have that kind of iconic quality," she says. "Adickes' work isn't funky enough. It's not hard-hitting enough. It's not surprising enough. There are absolutely no political, aesthetic or social issues. What is its purpose?"

Adickes takes such criticism in stride, likening himself to Liberace, the king of keyboard kitsch, who, he suggests, "laughed all the way to the bank."

"I personally think my art is as good as that by X, Y or Z," he says. "But we'll let history sort that out."

First of all, to Ann Holmes: Who gave you the right to criticize him for doing this? If it's on his private property and it doesn't violate any deed restrictions or zoning laws (hah!), then I'd say he's got as much right to do his thing as you do to hang wind chimes on your front porch. As one who drives this stretch of I-10 often, I'm looking forward to seeing the work come to life.

I'll be the first to admit that I'm not an art expert. I'm strictly from the I-know-what-I-like school, and I have to say, I really like Adickes' stuff. It's cool to look at, it's fun to talk about, and I think his planned additions to our landscape will make Houston a better place. Let the critics sputter all they want. I see this as essentially folk art, and I'm glad to see more of it.

[I]n 1991, Adickes found a receptive audience for his concrete concepts in Huntsville, where community leaders wanted a way to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Sam Houston, the town's patron statesman.

"Thirty people came to the meeting," Adickes recalls. "They said, `Let's do a cookbook.' Another wanted to create a rose species, another to improve lighting around Sam Houston's home, another wanted to get bales of hay and tell stories. Then I said, `Let's do something big.' "

Adickes' proposal to raise a 67-foot-tall steel and concrete statue of Houston in a copse of pines just south of town became a reality in late 1994, a year after the bicentennial of Houston's birth. Standing just east of Interstate 45, the statue, affectionately known as "Big Sam," became an immediate sensation among the motoring public.

Rhonda Ellisor, director of Huntsville's convention and visitors bureau, reported that tax receipts from travel spending have increased 50 percent since the statue was completed. Almost 500,000 people have signed the guest book in Big Sam's adjoining visitors center.

"The biggest impact of Big Sam," she says, "is that it has helped people recognize Huntsville as something other than a prison town. Sam Houston lived here. He died here, and he's buried here. The statue has brought that to the forefront of people's minds."

Art critic Kalil likens Big Sam to the giant lobsters, crabs and other funky concrete artworks that dot the state.

"Early on, I didn't think much of it," she says. "It was kind of an art elitist snobbery: This isn't really art. ... Now I've gotten used to it. It's kind of like a beacon. ... It's kind of comforting, reassuring. I know it's always going to be there. Now when I'm on Interstate 45, I find myself looking for Sam."

That's exactly how I feel when I drive north on I-45. Seeing the statue of Sam is the best part about driving back from Dallas because it lets me know I'm almost there. If that doesn't qualify it as Good Art, then I say the term has no meaning.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 17, 2004 to The great state of Texas | TrackBack

Sorry, have to disagree about the Sam Houston sculpture and this guy's other works. The side of an interstate is not the right place for sculpture. It is tacky and makes Texas look tacky and low class. Everything this guy does is tacky. My parents live in Williamsburg, Va. and everyone there hates his presidential heads. It is OK if this guy makes his tacky art, but why does he have to inflict it on others?

Posted by: J.F. on May 17, 2004 10:09 AM

"They don't have that kind of iconic quality ... Adickes' work isn't funky enough. It's not hard-hitting enough. It's not surprising enough. There are absolutely no political, aesthetic or social issues. What is its purpose?"

Um, to look pretty? I wasn't aware we lived in the People's Republic of Texas and our art had to be all about issues. Aesthetics are a matter of opinion.

I can't deny some of his stuff could be considered tacky, but tacky as big as Texas is fine with me. I bought in the Art Car neighborhood, so obviously I have no objection to tacky.

Posted by: Ginger on May 17, 2004 1:26 PM

Big Sam scared the hell out of me the first time I drove past him. I wasn't paying attention, it was night, and there was the tree-sized (and we're not talking small trees) ghostly white figure, with a cane...

Posted by: Michael on May 17, 2004 8:17 PM

"Large works like this intrude on your life. You can't ignore them."

And that is artistic justification enough.

Posted by: Michael on May 17, 2004 8:19 PM

I had the opportunity to see the statues 2 weeks ago. They are awesome! The eyes are so life-like. I think that the folks who criticize him do not know a thing about art. The statues are the greatest. Keep up the good work, Dave!

Posted by: GFlowers on November 27, 2006 7:55 PM