E.T. Wickham Sculpture Park
by Tadson Bussey
Just southwest of Clarksville in the hills of Tennessee is the small town of Palmyra. Located there along Buck Smith Road is the Wickham Sculpture Park, or at least what is left of it.
Enoch Tanner Wickham's imagination is a treasure that will inspire and last the ages, even as his concrete sculptures give way to vandalism and decay. Wickham created about 40 statues between 1952 and 1970, when he died at 87. According to Stacy Smith Segovia, of the Clarksville Leaf Chronicle, "The sculptures have since become known as one of only seven folk art sites of this size and importance in the country."
These statues were built of concrete, which Wickham, a self-taught artist, applied over rough metal armatures. He used whatever he could find, from abandoned bed rails to iron poles. He tied these together with electrical cord and attached wire mesh, rolling it into tubes for arms and legs. The concrete surfaces were built up with many layers, with the details (pockets, cuffs, etc.) inscribed directly into the wet surface. Wickham then used bright ready-mixed colors of commercial grade oil and latex paints. While he was alive, Wickham kept the pieces protected and refreshed with coats of paint.
Above left: Family vacation photo taken prior to Wickham's death in 1970 (photo by Charles Runyan).
Above right: The completed statues of John F. Kennedy, Estes Kefaufer, and Patrick Henry. A statue of Robert Kennedy was later added to the right of John F. Kennedy (1968, photo courtesy of Mary Evans).
Joe Schibig, Wickham's grandson, recalls, "While my grandfather was alive, he took better care of his statues than his house or yard because making statues and displaying them to the public were of utmost importance to him. It kept him physically and mentally strong into his eighties, but eventually age caught up with him."
The statues were originally built along both sides of Buck Smith Road. Almost all the stautes on the north side of the road are memorials to individuals or events, many of which sit on bases that contain messages appropriate to the work. Included on this side were statues of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Patrick Henry and Estes Kefauver (standing behind the Liberty Bell); W.D Hudson; Austin Peay; Sergent Alvin C. York; Andrew Jackson; Lester Soloman, Daniel Boone, Piominco and Sitting Bull; as well as Sam Davis and Bill March (shaking hands); Wickham's own Oxen and Wagon; a Bull's head; United Sportsman's Club and a WWII Memorial. "The family recalls that Wickham often worked from photos or artistic renderings," said Janelle Standburg Aieta, adjunct professor of art at Austin Peay University, "It is known that he visited the Andrew Jackson monument on the grounds of the State Capitol in Nashville, and his sculpture of Jackson on a rearing horse bears a striking resemblance."
The statues on the south side of the road, however, were of a religious nature. Using a giant sundial he built as a backdrop, he created a multi-figure scene depicting the miracle of Our Lady of Fatima, which included the Virgin Mary raised up on a pole. One that does not fit into either category is a self portrait of the artist riding a bull. The inscription on the base reads, "E.T. Wickham headed for the wild and wooley west, remember me boys while I'm gone."
Above: Building statues was hard, grueling work, especially for a man in his eighties, but Enoch Tanner single-handedly built each of these statues. Each of the larger ones took about 6 weeks to complete. Occasionally he got a little help from his grandchildren (1965 photo courtesy of Joe and Iris Schibig).
"After my grandfather's death," Schibig remembers, "no one was around to guard his statues. In time they were ravaged by the weather and vandals, mostly by the latter."
"What a shame," Schibig continues. "He was a hard-working creator, but the vandals and the elements were-and still are-relentless destroyers."
Photographer Clark Thomas first came across the statues three years after Wickham's death. "In 1973, within five minutes of stepping out of my car at the Wickham site, I felt compelled to photograph everything-every statue, every quotation, from every angle-until I had it all covered. Then I wanted to come back the very next morning to see it in another light, knowing I would probably want to shoot it all again."
"Being so compulsive," states Thomas, "wasn't in my nature. Wickham's site was simply that compelling. Everything about it said, 'Look at me, see me and read these words and remember me and what you see here.' His work made me photograph it."
"As it turns out, the photographs that I made that day allow people to see things that no longer exist, and the contrast with what is left today is dramatic," Thomas adds.
Above left: Statues as they appear along Buck Smith Road today (July 2004, photo by Tadson Bussey).
Above right: Statues as they appeared in late 1960s. Statues from left to right: Wickham aboard a reconstruction of his Old Wagon Pulled by Oxen; Sam Davis and Bill Marsh; W.D. Hudson; Estes Kefauver, Patrick Henry, J.F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy (behind the Liberty Bell); Austin Peay; Totem Pole; and John Wickham on Horseback (late 1960s, photo courtesy of Joe and Iris Schibig).
Thomas Clark was so right. The statues are a reminder of one man's imagination and dream. It serves as inspiration to us all. Dixie Webb, associate professor of art at Austin Peay University, says it so clearly,"Enoch Tanner Wickham achieved much and little in his life. Enoch Tanner Wickham left a legacy."
For more information:
To view Clark Thomas' photographs: http://simplephotographs.com/wickham/
Other essays and stories about E.T. Wickham and his statues: http://customshousemuseum.org/wickham/