This lecture is part of the Divine Disorder Conference held February 24-26, 2015.
“E.T. Wickham: The Intersection of Family and Preservation” by Brittany Wickham Walker
Brittany Wickham Walker: Good afternoon. I wish it was better weather, but I will try to condense this as much as I can. Again, my name is Brittany Walker. I’m here to introduce to you a Tennessee sculptor by the name of E.T. Wickham, one of great importance to me because he happens to be my great-grandfather. My educational background led me into conserving folk art. It’s a long and winding road, but I’m happy to be here.
When I started this project about a year ago, I had three questions in mind. I was curious about the local and county significance of Wickham’s public folk art park. I was also wanting to know how the community reacted to his work and what has been done since the artist’s death to restore these works. Then my last question was, how does Wickham’s park compare to other public folk art parks’, which we’ve seen earlier today, installations in the United States.
Looking at Wickham’s family history, the Wickham family has a rich history in England but they came to the United States in 1787, where Harvey Wickham and his wife had a son, Nathaniel, while aboard the ship. Now this Nathaniel was the grandfather to E.T. Wickham. The three of them migrated to North Carolina and settled in what is now Palmyra, which is in Montgomery County, Tennessee, by the end of 1787. Harvey built a cabin that still exists today. It’s not in great condition, but it’s still there. E.T. Wickham was the grandchild of Nathaniel and also the youngest of 10 children who survived through adulthood. The two images on the outside are of E.T. Wickham and his brother. Obviously he is the younger of the two. The middle image is of the Wickham family crest.
Before he started his career as a sculptor, he was a farmer. He was born in 1887. He hated his first name, which was Enoch, Enoch Tanner Wickham. He hated it, so he wanted people to call him E.T. or Tanner. He left school after the sixth grade to help out with the family tobacco farm because his brothers were going off to fight in World War I. In 1906, at the age of 19, he married Lena Annie Yarbrough and converted to Catholicism, unlike the rest of his family, who were Baptist.
He took over the tobacco farming and invented a wheat thresher to use on the farm and was a well-known land surveyor. He was also given an award by the Department of Interior and Agriculture for the efforts to reforest wasteland. He learned to use concrete during this time to dam lakes in the area, which we will see in his art in just a moment. In 1952, Tanner was 65 years old. He retired and moved down the street away from his family. He and his wife built a new cabin and started a new life. He just decided that he was going to start sculpting.
What he did was, he wanted space by the road where he could create his work. He knew from the very beginning that he wanted his work to be public. The medium that he chose was concrete. You can see on the left the base of one of his works, and then on the right, E.T. is sitting on a park bench just loving retirement. He found the models for his works in encyclopedias and newspapers. He didn’t travel much, so these were his inspiration. He loved history and followed politics closely. During this period of about a 20-year span, he created between 40 to 50 works of arts. Granted, this was between when he was 65 years old to almost 85. It’s pretty incredible.
The process of creating his sculpture, he would meld together scraps of iron, whether it be cans, coat hangers, stovepipes, old car parts, anything that he had just lying around, on a handbuilt forge to create the armature or skeleton of the work. He would use a handmade mix of concrete and apply a thick layer, which dried quickly, so it didn’t give him much time to carve out details. Once it dried, he applied layers of enamel paint and added props such as glasses, coats, top hats, anything that he saw appropriate. Each statue took approximately six weeks. There’s a great quote on the slide that I’d like to read to you: “Somehow, Wickham and his statues are accepted by the people of Palmyra as the most creative and natural expression of their temperament. Wickham, the old man of the hills, somehow captured the primitive spirit of America.” This was written by Daniel Prince, art critic. He was not the happiest man, kind of ornery, as my family likes to call him.
This is Wickham Stone Park, a diagram that I created. From the beginning, Wickham wanted his work to be public, and it’s shown here. We have two sides of the road. The west side of the road was religiously-motivated sculptures and on the east side of the road we have political and culturally-motivated sculptures, which are broken into themes. At some point, someone named it Wickham Stone Park, so that’s what it’s named now. Local and state dignitaries attended public ceremonies to unveil Wickham’s latest work and many included dedication ceremonies. By 1966, he had visitors from as far north as Canada and as far south as Florida to come see the statues and watch him work.
Three main themes come out of his work, the first of which is politics. As you can see from this work, this is an unusual one for his. When we start looking at more of his work, you’ll see this is definitely the black sheep of the family, I guess you could call it. The political works were usually based on men in office that he admired at the time and military themes and close relatives that fought in the Civil War, World War I and World War II. He had a deep admiration for the life and dedication of a soldier. Kneeling Soldier, which is shown on the screen, is one of the most unique artworks that he created. In the 1960s, it was actually commissioned by the federal government as a war memorial for an outdoor museum at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, which is not far from where he grew up. It’s based off of the spirit of infantry at Arlington Cemetery, which I’m sure he saw in an encyclopedia.
He was actually transported by a helicopter for the dedication ceremony. This is a story my mother loves to tell. She and her family came over to his house. They hauled the statue away and the helicopter landed on his property. My great-grandfather stood up and he dusted off his overalls and his blazer and he said, “Well, my ride is here.” It was a pretty big deal for someone who had only been in a car maybe half a dozen times. Pretty good story. This statue is unique because it’s not representative of his style at all but shows that he had the ability to create very realistic arts, and this shows us that his unique folk art style was a choice, not a lack of ability.
This next sculpture set shows three politicians as well as the Liberty Bell, including John F. Kennedy. Later, Robert Kennedy would be added after he was assassinated. On the left and right we have letters from the secretary to the President of the United States saying, “Thank you so much for writing.” Basically, somebody in the family, I don’t know if it was E.T. or somebody who was a little more literate, wrote to whoever he sculpted. “Okay, I created a statue for you. We would love to have you come see it.” He would get these letters and luckily we have records of them.
They were in no chronological sequence. His statues seem to be just random as far as chronology, but I’m sure he had some sort of technique in mind. It’s just not known at the moment.
The next theme is family works. On the left you see Selma, a picture of one of his first sculptures, a sculpture of his dog, his foxhound. On the right you can see E.T. Wickham standing next to the World War II memorial. Most of his works were about that size, just to put these into scale. He would build giant pedestals with the sculptures on top. In the center, one of his most controversial sculptures is from 1961, it’s Enoch Tanner on Blue Bull. This is very controversial because it also is a reference to Paul Bunyan and Babe, so there’s arguments over which story it is. The inscription on the base reads, “E.T. Wickham, headed to the wild and wily west, remember me boys while I’m gone.” Then it also says, “Do not touch or swing on these statues.” Even at that time, there was some vandalism going on, unfortunately. There were electric bulbs for the eyes of the bull and on several of his sculptures. He was a self-taught electrician.
The next theme are religious works. He converted to Catholicism at the age of 19 and it was a very important theme to him late in life. This on the left is his smallest sculpture. It’s about a foot long. He created it for his daughter, Sister Justina, who became a nun in a convent in Alabama. I think that’s as far as he ever traveled.
The right is Fatima, which he created in 1959. She stands on top of a 30-foot pole resembling a tree trunk, and there are also lighting elements to create a halo. She is the center of an unfinished, very important installation by Wickham, Sundial, that he created with apostles standing in every hour position, the three children of Fatima, the Portugal story, and lambs. There was a concrete wall at the base that is about four inches in height, marking the time of the day when the shadow is cast. It told the time. Wickham was trying to create the largest sundial in the world. He had apparently had a copy of the Guinness Book of World Records. Who knows how old it was, but he was trying to compete with that. A reporter wrote in one of the articles that the sundial was off by one minute from his watch, but he trusted Wickham’s sundial more than his watch.
Vandalism and destruction. This happened even before Wickham died, particularly in the ’60s. Palmyra’s a very secluded area. Not a lot to do out there. No Walmarts to go hang out at. Just very quiet, not a lot of streetlamps. Very quiet area. This is one of the statues that is the least vandalized, unfortunately. You can see, I’m just going to show you a series of his works, on the left are images from as early as I can find. Some images do not exist of statues that were completely destroyed. Then, on the right are images from 2014 that I took a few months ago. This is of Andrew Jackson.
This is the E.T. Wickham on the Blue Bull. As you can see, it no longer has a human with it. It’s just an amorphous, you can tell it’s a bull, this very strange, this very colorful graffiti on it.
We have Sam Davis and Bill Marsh, the Civil War Monument with Sam Davis. The former Confederate spy is shown here after the War shaking hands with Bill Marsh, a former Union spy and grandfather to E.T. Wickham. You can see, the heads were just completely taken off. Vandalism was, especially after Wickham died, it became shotgun targets. The statues became a fun, it was a cool thing to back up your truck into the statues to try to see how many you could break. It was interesting to try to shoot them with your guns or who could carve the crudest language into these, and oh, if you got the head taken off, then it’s 15 points, and if you shot an arm off, it’s 10 points. It’s very sad. Very, very sad. The once 40-to-50 works of art has dwindled down to less than 20, and most of them are not as intact as the one on the screen.
The next one is probably the most intact. It’s the Doctors Memorial inscribed with the names of 16 people who served as physicians in Montgomery County, including his brother. He had a lot of respect for the medical profession. We have John Wickham on Horseback, honoring his brother John. John received his medical degree at Vanderbilt, which is a huge deal for my family, in 1885. He also served on the 1901 session of the Tennessee House of Representatives, along with his friend Austin Peay of Clarksville, who later became the Governor of Tennessee. He served as Chairman of the Committee of Sanitation and introduced the bill which provided for the licensing of practicing physicians, so a pretty big deal. As you can see on the left, beautiful, the paints are just bright and colorful, and now, at least it’s somewhat intact, but you don’t get the same, it’s just not the same work anymore, unfortunately. You can see on the far right an image. He got the mustache spot on, I think.
This is the same work that we looked at earlier but with Robert Kennedy added to it after his assassination. Here’s how it appears today. You can see that kudzu and plenty of other plants are growing over these works as well. If you look at the image on the left, this is how the park looked in 1965. The sculptures were close together, but you can see the props, for example, the covering over the wagon. In some of these images, if you look closely, you can see hats on some of the figures. Now, all that’s left are the team of oxen. The oxen were modeled after a team that Wickham drove into the city for supplies and equipment because he rarely would ride in a car. Again, this is the World War II Memorial, decapitated. I think there’s part of one arm, and a lot of graffiti, a lot of damage done to it.
Recognition of Wickham’s work, now that we looked at all the terrible things that have been done to these concrete statutes. While the sites still draw visitors, the height of the popularity after Wickham’s death halted, but in 2001, the Customs House Museum and Cultural Center in Clarksville put on an exhibition called “E.T. Wickham: A Dream Unguarded.” It is the first and only exhibit on the artist. Why 2001? The director of the museum, Ned Crouch, is a folk art specialist and had a long-time interest in Wickham and his work. He wanted to draw attention to the site and urge the community to rediscover and appreciate these works. The exhibit was very successful but was not out for very long, and the catalog is the only publication that is dedicated to the artist because there are no books written on him yet.
Restoration and the World’s Fair. The same Ned Crouch, then working at Austin Peay, was given permission by the Wickham family to restore five works. He was contacted by the World’s Fair official about the World’s Fair in Knoxville which was happening in 1982 and asked if they could show Wickham’s work. They worked really hard and they came up with four that were displayed. As you can see, these are all stages of one of the works, Joseph and Christ Child, which looks so much better than it did. I was sure I put one of the slides on. They have heads now, which is very important.
Comparisons to other artists. Obviously there is precedent for public concrete parks. I don’t know that Wickham ever got to see any of these, but maybe he saw them in encyclopedias, but the Garden of Eden and the Wisconsin Concrete Park, there are definitely parallels that can be drawn from them. Last slide, the future and preservation. Opportunities for restoration, which would be ideal and goal, this is what I’d like to write my dissertation on and hopefully find the grants to actually go in and work with a group to restore some of these sculptures and working with Middle Tennessee State University. They have Concrete Industry Management. Not much has been written on the topic, so there’s plenty of room to grow from that, but I’m hoping to keep the spirit of my great-grandfather’s works alive. Thank you.
In the back woods of Palmyra, Tennessee, a small community southwest of Clarksville, dozens of concrete statues line a road near the Cumberland River. Although many of these sculptures have been vandalized since their creation in the mid-1900s, they play an important role in the settlement and identity of the area. These sculptures were created by Enoch Tanner Wickham, a self-taught artist who created nearly forty concrete works during the last twenty years of his life, using only the materials around him. Although his period of artistic significance lasted less than twenty years, Wickham’s work had a notable impact on his community. His formal education ended in the sixth grade, but his knowledge of and interest in American history and politics inspired his work. His sculptures included politicians, religious figures, wildlife, American presidents, and soldiers. A descendent of one of the first families to settle in Montgomery County, Wickham was surprisingly liberal for his age and location, inspired by figures like John F. Kennedy. The artist had a reputation of being a mischief-maker, often playing practical jokes on his conservative (and not receptive) Palmyra neighbors.
Along with being an important folk artist in the Montgomery County area, E.T. Wickham was also my great-grandfather. I never met E.T. Wickham, but his interest in art and history inspired me from a young age. In a high school art class, I made a sculpture of an angel similar to the one in our family cemetery, using papier-mâché and chicken wire. While sculpture never turned out to be my artistic calling (I’m pretty sure the angel ended up melting in a rain storm), Wickham’s work inspired me to pursue a degree in art and architecture. As I’ve continued my studies, my artistic interests and practices have drifted toward historic preservation.
In the early 2000s, historians began to take a renewed interest in Wickham’s work. E.T. Wickham: A Dream Unguarded, an exhibition at the Customs House Museum in Clarksville, was curated with the help of academics from across the state, including professors from the local Austin Peay State University. Even though I was a teenager when this exhibition was on display, my family visited the museum several times to see the research that had been done on my great-grandfather and his work. Since leaving Montgomery County after high school, my studies have taken me all over the country, from western Massachusetts, Santa Fe, Chicago, Nashville, and Washington, D.C. As I enter the Ph.D. program in Public History at MTSU, I realize that I’m being drawn back to my Tennessee roots, perhaps to continue the research on E.T. Wickham started by neighbors in Clarksville.
This presentation addresses the history of Wickham’s works along with the vandalism that damaged or destroyed many of his sculptures during the 1980s. It also focuses on the conservation treatments that have been applied to two of the artist’s works by professors at Austin Peay State University. Through documentation as well as historic photographs, this analysis explores how to preserve these works of art that have become a “well-known secret” to locals in Montgomery County. It is my hope that through my work at the MTSU Center for Historic Preservation, I will be able to lead the effort in restoring these sculptures that mean so much to my family. Research can often take you down roads you’ve never discovered, but it can also bring you back home.
Brittany Wickham Walker is a Ph.D. candidate studying Public History at Middle Tennessee State University. She grew up in Clarksville, Tennessee and attended Smith College, where she earned a B.A. in Architecture. After graduating, she joined Teach For America and taught while earning her M.Ed. from Lipscomb University. Seeking to combine the disciplines of architecture and education, she then earned her M.S. in Historic Preservation from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Brittany works at the MTSU Center for Historic Preservation, where she develops educational resources for the Teaching with Primary Sources program through the Library of Congress.