The Sorcerers’ Apprentice Project:
Talking Shop with David Adickes
(Note: There are multiple links throughout the interview below to Mr. Adickes’ website and related work projects online)
What follows are the highlights of a most enjoyable visit with one of America’s premier artists. I am hopeful that sessions such as this may become a regular feature here on TheGardenArtForum.Com, even if only infrequently. Artists and master craftspeople who are firmly established, highly experienced and willing to share their wisdom with eager apprentices are not that easy to come by, but there are a few out there. They understand the value of freely passing along what they have learned and appreciate the benefits it brings to the very crafts they have invested their lives in. While they have indeed earned all the honors, accolades and success that their talent and hard work have brought them, their willingness to give back by sharing their experience merits even greater recognition. By passing on the flame of creativity, they establish themselves firmly in the inspirational continuum of art. We and future generations of aspiring artists are in your debt, and, we thank you.
You’d think a man who’d just celebrated his 80th birthday the weekend before would be relatively easy to pin down. Not David Adickes. He not only looks twenty years younger, but he also keeps up a pace that many half his age would find difficult to maintain. He graciously worked me into his busy schedule on Friday, the 26th of January and again on Tuesday, February 6th, 2007 for an interview at his expansive studio/warehouse near downtown Houston, Texas. Thankfully, they turned out to be a beautiful, sunny day that allowed for outdoor pictures for the first time in several weeks. A good thing. Because when it comes to sculpture, David doesn’t like to think small. In fact, he constructs artwork on a scale that would intimidate a lot of architects and engineers. Quite a feat for someone who considers himself a painter first, and a self-taught, figure-it-out-as-you-go sculptor second. And, after chatting with him a while, I have a feeling that it just may be that same remarkable sense of curiosity, wonder and “I can do that” attitude that keeps him so young and spry. Hmmm. Maybe there’s more than just an art lesson in this for all of us.
David Adickes with one of his many paintings of “Ladies of Style”.
We began by discussing a few of his many interesting ferrocement sculptural projects. Projects like “Big Sam” for example (officially titled: “A Tribute to Courage”). A realistic concrete and steel memorial to General Sam Houston. Dedicated on October 22, 1994, it is the world’s tallest statue of an American hero.
Image courtesy of our good friends at:
Located on US 75/I-45, just outside of Huntsville, Texas, Sam is 67 feet tall plus a ten-foot, Texas sunset granite base, weighs in at about thirty tons and is visible for up to 6 and a half miles.
TGAF: How did you originally begin working with ferrocement as an art medium?
David: Well, in 1984, real estate tycoon Joe Russo came to me with an offer to create a large scale public sculpture in downtown Houston celebrating the musical arts. I developed a model for a piece that I then called “The Cello”, but was eventually titled “Virtuosso”. An abstracted instrument and cellist that was to be about 36 feet tall. Large, but appropriately scaled for the site among all the tall buildings. I considered a variety of different mediums…bronze would be wonderful, but that large a piece would present a host of significant casting problems. Wood could have been interesting, but hardly the right material for an outdoor sculpture in this climate. Stone, of course, could handle the elements and would look great…but the weight would be staggering. That’s when I realized that concrete could provide a way to work the equivalent of stone into a hollow, light weight form. And the more I researched the materials and techniques, the more engaged I became. It really is quite a remarkable medium. And while a lot of artists, not to mention art critics, may turn their nose up at it, I’ve never been one to abandon something wonderful just because it isn’t on someone else’s “approved” list. Like any other medium, whether it’s oils, bronze, steel, music or dance…it all comes down to what the artist does with it.
“Virtuosso” by David Adickes
TGAF: Tell me about the Sam Houston project. How did that one come about?
David: Well, I was born in Huntsville and grew up there, so naturally I was very familiar with the history. I also read Marquis James’ biography, which is an excellent account of the Generals life and career. He was a man of extraordinary courage, both on the battlefield and in terms of moral conviction. He was a man genuinely worthy of memorializing. Then in 1991, I attended a meeting in Huntsville to discuss plans for a memorial and suggested a few ideas for something on a rather grand scale. Naturally, their first question was “How can we fund something like that”. And for some reason, I said that I would pay for it “up to the knees”, he laughed, shaking his head in retrospect. Of course, they liked that idea, but then we had to figure out how to fund the rest of it. I wound up getting a group of 14 people together, mostly friends, who managed to raise the balance. Then, all I had to do was figure out how in the world to make it work.
TGAF: Was this the largest concrete sculpture you ever attempted?
David: Without question Over the years, I had completed numerous major installations executed in a similar fashion, including several right here in Houston. But The Generals’ scale presented some extraordinary engineering challenges.
TGAF: Understandably. What were the basic steps involved?
David: I began by sculpting a detailed, one-tenth scale model. That was scaled up on grid paper to create patterns for full-sized steel frameworks for each of the ten sections the statue was divided into for production. We then added steel mesh to each frame section and hand sculpted concrete to match the x and y grid surface contours, finishing the surfaces with white Portland cement. The head, which was divided into three more manageable sections, was cast from hard rubber molds that were also scaled up in a similar fashion. Of course, the layers of cement and reinforcing had to be built in the reverse order when casting. White Portland going in first, followed by fiberglass mesh, then concrete and wire mesh and finally attaching the steel frame structure. Once all the segments were completed, they were assembled by stacking each of them in order with a large crane onto the base and welding them to a central steel framework that is anchored into the base. The final stage consisted of patching and finishing the seams with white Portland to match the rest of the surface.
For more information on David Adickes “A Tribute to Courage”, visit the official website at…
To see an illustrated guide to Sam’s construction, see the following associated link…
We then discussed the remarkable busts of the Presidents he has completed. All 43 of them. Each eighteen to twenty feet high, and now in their third reproduction series.
Below are few snapshots I took of the most recent reproduction series which are currently in residence at the artists’ studio (the warehouse complex seen in the background of the bottom photo).
A lot of people who see David Adickes’ finished work assume that they are looking at solid concrete. And while it would be far more massive and difficult to install, in many ways it would probably be much easier to execute. His work is actually much more complex and remarkably light, considering the materials. And while I doubt any TGAF members have completed anything quite as grand, you will note in the detail photos & description below, that he uses basically the same techniques many of you employ.
The Presidents’ Torsos:
- Construct a metal framework or “armature”
2. Attach stucco lath and reinforcing mesh
3. Build up and sculpt a cement-based mixture
The Presidents’ Heads & Faces:
- Sculpt a master model to size
2. Make a rubber mold of the original
3. Cast, reinforce & join onto torso
Note that the stucco lath Mr. Adickes used on the torsos comes with an asphalt saturated kraft building paper already applied to one side. It is water resistant, yet highly vapor permeable, allowing the mortar to breathe. It also prevents excess wet mix from dripping through the mesh during construction.
Above are just a few of the many reinforced plaster “Mother Molds” used to support the flexible rubber casting molds. It quickly became clear why his studio needs to be a two-story warehouse.
The Interview Continues
TGAF: During our “walkabout” tour of your facility here earlier, you mentioned the mold material you used. I believe many of our readers are going to be quite surprised at what you chose for casting the Presidents’ heads & faces. Not some high-tech, high-priced, unobtainable wonder substance…but rather an everyday product…right from the local hardware store. And one that happens to be very popular with the craft crowd on TheGardenArtForum. Tell me more about it.
David: I used plain old silicone caulk…right out of standard sized tubes. A lot of them. In part because of the economy, but also because it records wonderful detail and is durable enough to stand up to limited multiple castings. It would have cost a small fortune to have used two-part urethane rubber for 43 molds of this scale, so I looked for a viable alternative. With a little experimenting, I discovered that as long as you stick with 100% pure silicone, you will get excellent results and it has a very long shelf life once cured. Something like fifty-years. The real key to using it successfully is to make sure that the mother molds that support the silicone rubber are very solid, well fitted and provide ample support when casting the concrete.
TGAF: I saw quite a few of them stored throughout your workspace, and they are indeed, very well constructed, with what appears to be fiberglass reinforcing throughout.
David: That’s correct. We alternated layers of plaster with fiberglass mesh to produce mother molds that were very rigid, but much less prone to cracking than plaster alone.
TGAF: While examining the finished torsos, I noticed what appears to be a fair amount of Styrofoam incorporated into your mix. Was this to help keep the overall weight down?
David: Exactly. The typical bust weighs only about six to seven thousand pounds. And while that may sound like a lot, it is significantly less than what conventional concrete would yield. And it makes transporting and installing them a much simpler and safer task.
TGAF: Was the Styrofoam you used in bead form?
David: No…actually it was Styrofoam…“sawdust”, for lack of a better term. It came from a local facility that was manufacturing a variety of foam products and produced huge amounts of scrap, shavings and fine particle waste. I was able to get it for free for a long time and they were thrilled to have me carry it off. But now they resell it for a variety of uses.
TAGF: What kind of concrete or mortar mixtures do you use to build up the shape and form for your work?
David: We use a basic sharp sand and cement mortar mixture for the base coats. Actual “concrete” containing rock or gravel would be far too coarse to sculpt. Then the surfaces are finished by building up thin coats of neat white Portland paste to smooth out the surface. Lately I have been applying an elastomeric paint designed specifically for use on cement-based mixtures and I am very pleased with the results.
TGAF: I know that the first two series of Presidents are currently installed in parks in two different states. One in South Dakota and the other in Virginia, do you have a site picked for the third set that is presently here at your studio?
David: That’s still undecided at the moment, but there are discussions underway that may result in this particular series being installed somewhere here in Texas.
TGAF: I couldn’t help but notice when I first drove up, that you have another little sculpture project in the works. And, in spite of still being in the early stages, the subjects are quite unmistakable…The Beatles. What can you tell us about this particular project, beyond the fact that they are more abstract…and close to four stories tall?
David: John, Paul and George, the standing figures, are about thirty-six feet tall. Ringo is seated and a little less, but he will be installed onto a proper drummer’s riser that will be two-feet high. And yes…they do differ from Sam and The Presidents in style. This is a personal project… one I am doing strictly for myself, and I am using a design approach that is much closer to my painting style in that it is what I call an abstracted…but not “abstract”, figurative work.
TGAF: Where as Sam and The Presidents are combinations of hand laid concrete for the bodies and castings for the head and facial features… the “Boys from Liverpool” appear to be assembled more or less as separate design or structural elements, is that correct?
David: I did construct many of the elements like the legs, hands and guitars individually and then assemble them, but the construction techniques are essentially the same. However, on this work, only the faces are cast from molds. Everything else is built up mortar on steel and lath frameworks.
TGAF: And once completed, where will they be installed?
David: Since this is a piece of work I’m doing for myself, they will be placed on a little piece of property I own here in Houston. The best part is that the property is right on Interstate 10. One of the most heavily traveled highways in America. And they will be visible for quite a distance to anyone traveling east or west along that route.
TGAF: That’s quite an extraordinary gift, David. I am at a loss for words…except…thank you!
David: I am happy just to be able to share what I can. And I hope it brings as much pleasure to those who view it … as it has brought me in process of creating it.
TGAF: Well, The Beatles provide the perfect segue into one last art item in your studio that I absolutely have to inquire about. Something that’s likely to be only of interest to retired Hippies…and aging native Houstonians. On one wall, back in a corner, is an original, vintage psychedelic poster from this city’s greatest contribution to the ‘60’s…”The Love Street Light Circus Feel Good Machine”. Quite simply the “grooviest”, most “far out” and “happening” entertainment establishment anywhere east of the original Fillmore. I know. I saw them both. And “The Feel Good Machine” could hold it’s own with the best that Haight-Ashbury ever had to offer. And while I freely admit to having serious “Poster-Envy”…I have to ask…how did you come by that wonderful piece of art?
David: (Laughs)…You were there?
TGAF: Absolutely. The “Liquid Light Show” that was projected onto a two-story wall was absolutely amazing. It was the kind of mind-bending, head-trip experience that made the ‘60’s…well…“the ‘60’s”.
David: (Shaking his head and more chuckling)…Well, thank you. That was my club.
TGAF: Your club!?……
David: Yes. And to tell the truth…the only reason I set it up was to experiment with the light show you just mentioned. I ran it for a few years then sold it. I never did get paid for it…but I did have a heck of a lot of fun.
TGAF: …and the poster…don’t tell me…yours too?…
David: Well…I was the resident artist there, so naturally I did the poster. I silk screened it in four colors… Day-Glo, of course, plus lithography for the image of Theda Barra. It was a lot of fun in itself.
TGAF: David, you are indeed a man full of surprises. On behalf of myself and all the good folks at TheGardenArtForum.Com, I want to sincerely thank you for your time and interest, as well as for all the wonderful art that you have given the world. Any parting words of advice for aspiring artists?
David: Stay curious…follow your heart…damn the critics… and don’t waste your life on anything you don’t genuinely love.
TGAF: Good words for anyone to live by. Once again, thank you so very much for sharing.
June 8, 2007
I had the pleasure of attending the official unveiling of “The Beatles” at David Adickes studio/warehouse last night and it was quite a dog & pony show. Lots of local artists, art fans, celebrities, celebrity-wannabes, the media, millionaires, street people and more than a few old fashioned hangers-on soaking up the free Sangria. What could only be described as the perfectly eclectic kind of crowd you’d expect at an art happening of this magnitude. It was great. The actual installation is being organized now and I will try to do a follow up on that event as well.
His daughter christened them in the tradition of a ship launching by whacking a perfectly good bottle of Champagne across a temporary brace near John Lennon’s right foot. A practice that I discovered was an Adickes family tradition when any major work was being publicly presented for the first time. And considering how prolific David is, I can only hope that he gets his bubbly at the “case price”.
Here are a group of pix I shot as the sun was getting low in the sky. Their actual finish is bright white, but the golden rays of the sunset gave them the pleasantly warm glow you see in most of these shots. The construction particulars are in the original interview above.
Artists’ Official Bio & Website
David Adickes’ career as a painter and more recently as a sculptor spans many years. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in math/physics, Adickes went to France and studied from 1948 to 1950 with modern French master Fernand Leger. He returned to Houston and began a painting career which led to dozens of one-man shows in the U.S. and France. Several Museums and many corporate and private collections own his work.
In the 50’s he traveled extremely, circling the globe, painting in Tahiti, Japan, Spain and living six years in France. In 1983, Adickes was commissioned to make his first monumental sculpture in Downtown Houston, “Virtuoso” at the Lyric Center, then in 1994 he completed the 76 foot figure of Sam Houston in Huntsville, Texas.
In 1996 he began a seven year project, building two Presidents Parks, one near Mt. Rushmorein SD, August 2003, and the other at Williamsburg, VA, March 2004. Each Park contains 18′ to 20′ tall busts of all the U.S. presidents. Since December 2003 Adickes has resumed painting full time and is currently very productive. His subjects, as always, are groups of figures, landscapes, and still lifes. His signature figures, dubbed “the Adickes men” by biographer A. Cautey were later described as “stunning canvases that are painted with virtuosity that is compelling” by author James A. Michener in his monograph/critique “Adickes” 1968, published in Barcelona.
Adickes lives and paints in Houston and has paintings in collections all across America.
The Artists’ Website: www.tiannahall.com/DavidAdickes/index.html
The entire contents of this interview and the associated images are the sole and exclusively copyrighted property of Holland & Tucker, the owner/operators of TheGardenArtForum.Com and may not me reproduced by any means, for any purpose without their express, written consent. © Holland & Tucker 2007