A Presidential Audience

by Published on
President heads.

Driving south on TX-288 from Houston, you’re almost to the Pearland exit when you see them: half a dozen giant heads of former presidents of the United States-Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, Kennedy and George W. Bush. They’re cast in white concrete and planted in a wide semicircle facing the freeway from the middle of a vast field of dead grass. They have necks and chests, but only barely, as if they’ve just surfaced for air. They’re cast in two sizes, making the smaller presidents look embarrassed and puny next to their bigger brethren.

Eventually these heads will be highlights of the Presidential Park & Gardensâ„¢ in the WaterLights Districtâ„¢ of Pearland, but for now they’re just heads in a field. The sculptor responsible is David Adickes, who also gave Texas the terrifying 70-foot full-body likeness of Sam Houston that rises without warning out of the wall of pine trees lining I-45 on the way to Huntsville. Adickes’ publicity people recently distributed a press release announcing that he’s already working on an 18-foot bust of President-elect Barack Obama, also made of white concrete, to join the parade of presidents gracing Presidential Park & Gardensâ„¢.

This announcement struck me as a perfectly ironic and potentially iconic representation of the premature idolization and pre-emptive elevation of the president-elect to the American pantheon. Already one of our favorite presidents, without having served a day! The features of a black man cast in blinding white! It seemed like a wry little story, so I arranged to visit Adickes’ studio, attitude at the ready.

I expected some guy in his late 40s wearing a pre-distressed sweater, maybe some expensive and angular eyewear and the intensity of someone who takes himself much too seriously. I thought he’d rhapsodize about the challenges of really getting inside the heads-ha, ha-of his mostly dead presidents and bringing their interior lives to life. About giving The People a chance to stand close to the greatness that makes this great country so great.

(As an aside, I should add that the WaterLights Districtâ„¢ that will feature Adickes’ heads is really just another big outdoor mall (but with light shows and boat rides), another source of traffic for those of us who live off FM 518 and commute on 288, and another municipal prosthetic to make newcomers think that Pearland is a master-planned community like The Woodlands, which it’s not. Pearland is a sweet little podunk town, my hometown, that’s been developing metastatic growths of generic upper-middle-class suburbia on its western flank for 20 years. So I considered Adickes and the WaterLights Districtâ„¢ that will feature his art to be, if not precisely part of the problem, then at least beneficiaries of the problem.)

I drove through the wire-topped gates and onto the grounds of the Adickes SculpturWorx Studio near downtown Houston on a bleary Tuesday morning. In the yard across from the parking lot were dozens of presidential busts graying in the weather and surrounded by weeds. The lot was dotted with dirty yellow construction equipment, and behind all the heads towered four cartoonish Beatles with their instruments. It was a pleasingly surreal scene: grandiosity meets the mundane, with just a soupçon of post-Soviet decay.

I took some pictures, walked up the stairs to the warehouse and knocked on a metal door through which I could hear music. A Hispanic man wearing a badly beaten white straw cowboy hat sideways, so it looked vaguely Napoleonic, answered the door.

“I’m from the Observer,” I said. “My name is Emily. Is Mr. Adickes here?”

“He no here,” the man said and started to close the door.

“Can I wait?” I said.

“OK.” He let me in and walked briskly away. The light was dim and the air was hazy with dust and paint. Receding into the bowels of the warehouse were rows of giant heads. On a table were a dozen papier mâché busts, one missing the crown of his cranium, the hollow of his cardboard skull filled with newsprint.

I wandered around, glad to be ignored, excited by the proximity to creativity. In a side room full of paint-and-plaster-splattered sculpting tools and construction implements squatted an ancient red Frigidaire with poetry magnets on it. In the corner, a life-sized cardboard cutout of George W. Bush was folded over at the ankles, doubled forward and twisted, grinning up from the floor.

Then the door blew open and in burst a tiny old man. It was Adickes. He was petite and animated at 81, chin-high to me, gazing up with dark, sparkling eyes. He snatched the black fisherman’s cap off his head and jutted out his hand. “Emily,” he said breathlessly. “I’m so sorry I’m late. There was a line at the post office. I had to get something in the mail today and …” He stopped and looked around. “It’s too hazy in here. Let’s go somewhere else.”

He led me out, down and up some concrete steps and into a small, warmly lit room filled with paintings. I recognized them as Adickes’ own work; I’d read that he was primarily a painter and had seen his portraits online. There were serene, elongated figures that evoked Picasso’s more accessible portraits and lightly Cubist still lifes. There were bay scenes, horsemen among trees, profiles of women with multicolored hair whipping around them, all in a vibrant blend of muted and electric colors. The paintings leaned against the wall and one another, looking valued but not necessarily prized.

Adickes pulled two plastic chairs close to a space heater. He offered me the one with less paint on it, and then took off his coat, under which was a quilted vest with 10 visible pockets, which he patted, searching for something. Then he found it (his cell phone), pulled it out, and handed it to me.

“Can you tell me how to see who just called me?” he said. “I never carry that thing and the only people who have that number are people I don’t want to talk to anyway but I ought to call them back. I’m being dragged kicking and screaming into this century and I don’t like it one bit.” I fumbled, failing to intuit the relationship between the menu and the actual buttons, then accidentally erased one of his messages. I handed the phone back to him.

“Thank you!” he said, sincerely. “So, you just want to chat?”

“I just have a few questions,” I said, opening my notebook. “Why did you decide to sculpt Obama before he’s even been inaugurated?”

“Well, they asked me to,” he said. We blinked at each other.

“But,” I pressed, “How do you-they-know he’s going to be one of the greats, to be immortalized alongside FDR and Lincoln?”

“Oh,” Adickes said, “the park will have all the presidents.”

I shuffled my notes. I really should have known that.

I changed tack. “So, um, do you usually work from photographs, or …”

“Well,” he grinned, “it’s hard to get James Madison to sit for me.”

“Why heads?” I blurted.

“I was driving back to Houston from visiting a friend in Canada when I saw Mount Rushmore and I was completely overwhelmed. But I was disappointed that you can’t get close to it. So somewhere along Kansas I thought, wouldn’t it be great to do the heads of the presidents so you can look them in the eye?”

“They seem like very conventional art,” I said. “How emotional is the process?”

“Not very emotional,” Adickes said. “It’s just skill, figuring out what somebody looks like and how to render that. I try to make them as lifelike as possible. If you look at the eyes, they’re cut in at the pupil and hanging from that is this little disc of reflection that gives them life. That’s everyone’s favorite part about them, the reflection.”

By this time, my droll, knowing story had withered in the light of his guileless sincerity. There wasn’t a mote of bullshit about him, and that’s what I’d thought my story was going to be about: bullshit.

“You just want me to talk?” he said helpfully.

“Please,” I said.

“Well,” Adickes began, “I was born in Huntsville in 1927 because my mother was there and I wanted to be close to her for that event. Family tradition.”

For the next two hours, David Adickes told me the story of his life. He graduated from high school in Huntsville, went to A&M for a year, then joined the Air Force and flew a DC-3 back and forth to Paris for a few years, getting his first taste of art and travel. After the Air Force, he got a B.S. in math and physics from Sam Houston State and then went back to Paris to study art at the Atelier Fernand Legier. “I didn’t learn anything,” he said, “but it was great.” Returning to Houston, he and another GI opened an art school, “which promptly failed,” but in the process he got acquainted with the Houston art community, of which he would soon become such a noted part.

Adickes’ first major sculpture was “Virtuoso,” a cello-playing floating head and hands in front of the Lyric Centre building in downtown Houston. Then came a giant stone trumpet, the 70-foot Sam Houston, and then three complete sets of the presidential heads. The first collection is in a Presidential Parkâ„¢ in Williamsburg, Va. The second is in a park near Mount Rushmore. The third will be installed at WaterLightsâ„¢.

“There’s always someone with a pipe dream,” he said. “One guy wanted me to build another Statue of Liberty on the West coast but make her Asian.”

Adickes’ art didn’t blow me away, but something else did. It was the way he lived his life. In 1955, he was offered a job teaching at the University of Texas, but he quit after two years because he wanted to travel the world and spend a year in Japan. “I fell in love with Kyoto,” he said. “I found a studio to rent from a famous ceramicist and I told myself, one year in Japan, one year seeing the rest of the world. I lived with a woman and I painted. It was heaven. But then my year was up. I told her I had to go and she said, ‘Aren’t you happy here?’ and I said, ‘The happiest I’ve ever been.’ And she said, ‘Why are you leaving?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know.’”

As he said this, he turned his head away and looked up, trapping tears in the wells of his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said. We waited. “I saw Damascus, Lebanon, Turkey, Constantinople, Cyprus. I spent five weeks in the hospital in Old Delhi. It was a great experience.”

To Adickes, every experience was a great one. He traveled, painted, taught, studied, opened a Houston dance club in ’67 called the Love Street Light Circus and Feelgood Machine where ZZ Top had their first performance, sold it, became best friends with James Michener, got married, had a daughter, got divorced, slept in the Lincoln bedroom, got married again, and when he heard his old high school in Huntsville was about to be torn down, he bought it, planning to convert it to studio space.

There were no sad stories. There was no bitterness or regret. Adickes was buoyant, fearless, unrepentant-everything an artist should be. The two constants in his life were art and change. He was what my beloved Beat poets might have become if they had been able to sell some books and stay off drugs and grow up.

Just then, two girls walked past the metal door of the studio, chatting. Adickes hopped up and stuck his head out. “Hi,” he said. “Are you looking for me? I’m David.” I couldn’t hear the girls’ reply, but Adickes said, “Oh, okay. I’m sorry,” and withdrew. He looked at his watch and sucked in a little breath. “I have a doctor’s appointment at one, and should eat first.” It was noon.

He slipped past me to the radio, turned on NPR, listened for a minute, then turned it off. It felt like we’d compressed a relationship into a couple of hours, like passengers stuck in an elevator overnight. We had both been lost in the story, and now we were back in the roles we’d entered with, and it felt strange. I closed my notebook, feeling like I was hiding a knife.

“Would you like to have lunch with me?” Adickes said.

“I’d love to,” I said, and I started to put on my coat. He was searching my face, as if he’d forgotten that he didn’t know me, and was now seeing me for the first time. Then he opened the door for me.

“I know a little place,” he said, following me out and locking the studio door behind us. “It’s called Chili’s.”

Contributing writer Emily DePrang lives in Pearland.

Emily DePrang is a staff writer at The Texas Observer where she covers criminal justice and public health. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic and Salon.com, and she’s a former nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. She’s holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. In 2013, she was a National Health Journalism Fellow; in 2012 she won the Sigma Delta Chi award for public service in magazine journalism.