Visitors to historic downtown Rapid City, South Dakota, are greeted by a series of life-size bronze statues of our nation’s past presidents along the city’s streets and sidewalks. The City of Presidents project began in 2000, to honor the legacy of the American presidency. Each of the sculptures is privately funded, and the pattern of placement is chosen to maintain a coherent structure and eliminate any sense of favoritism or political gain, according to the project’s website.
The Obama statue, unveiled on the corner of 4th and Saint Joseph Streets on July 15, was sponsored by local businessman Mike Gould, in honor of his late father, and created by his friend, the Rapid City artist, James Van Nuys. “My only criteria was that it should be positive and evoke hope. I think it does. He did a magnificent job,” Gould said in an email to Irish America. “Sometimes I think that having grown up with an Irish father as a role model was the best that any one could have hoped for as I had more than hope. I had a parent that told me I could literally be and do anything if I was willing to work hard. The statue evokes hope and I hope my father would be proud. He wasn’t much of a Democrat or liberal.
He had the theology of a Druid and the politics of law and order. He was first and foremost a gentleman, and would have hated the incivility of modern politics.” Speaking to KOTATV, Van Nuys, who worked on the piece for the past two years, said it took him about 500 hours to complete. He used a photograph taken of Obama walking on the stage at his first inaugural with his daughter as inspiration.“I thought that it was a nice feel-good kind of piece,” said Van Nuys. The Obama monument, the fourth statue Van Nuys has created for the City of Presidents project, shares a kinship to President’s Kennedy’s monument in that both men are portrayed as fathers.
John Lopez, who created the statue of President John Kennedy, installed 10 years ago, said that he chose to do Kennedy because he always enjoyed reading about him. “They were such a young family and that’s why people fell in love with them… I didn’t want to do a man in a suit looking presidential,” he said in a phone call. He found his inspiration for the sculpture in a picture in a magazine of JFK coming out of the Oval Office and John-John running towards him. “I wanted to remind people that we sometimes forget that our leaders have other things on their minds. The one thing I changed is that I put a toy airplane in JFK’s hand. His son and I were the same age.”In all, Lopez has created 12 presidential sculptures, but the figures of JFK and his son have more of a golden hue than the others. “I used a different patina… I didn’t want it to be dark. It’s bronze, but it looks more golden,” he said.
The City of Presidents project is an extension of Mount Rushmore, just 23 miles away, where George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln are carved in stone in the Black Hills. Surrounded by the beauty of the Black Hills, the carvings are seen as a symbol of America – a symbol of freedom and hope for people from all cultures and backgrounds. Of the 45 U.S. presidents to date, 22, including Obama, had Irish roots and connections. ♦