News & Politics

A Johnny Cash Statue Is Coming to the Capitol

The sculptor explains how he captured Cash’s complexity.

Kevin Kresse shaping a small-scale model of his Cash statue. Photograph courtesy of Kevin Kresse.

The US Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection tends to honor politicians and historical figures—Ronald Reagan, Sam Houston, Brigham Young, Barry Goldwater . . . you get the idea. But with-in the next year or so, a statue with a decidedly different vibe will be unveiled: an eight-foot likeness of country-music great Johnny Cash.

The Man in Black will be arriving in DC thanks to Arkansas, where he was born. Each state is allowed two entries in the Statuary Hall Collection, displayed in various places around the Capitol. Arkansas’s current contributions—which have stood in the Capitol for more than a century—depict men with ties to the Confederacy, and the state is in the process of replacing both. (Whether they’re specifically being removed for that reason depends on whom you ask.) So 19th-century attorney Uriah Milton Rose will give way to celebrated civil-rights activist Daisy Bates, while former Arkansas governor and US senator James Paul Clarke will yield his spot to Cash.

Which is why right now, in a Little Rock studio, artist Kevin Kresse is crafting the roughly 1,200-pound bronze sculpture that will—he hopes—capture Cash’s essence. Kresse, an Arkansas native with connections to Little Rock’s music scene, got the gig by answering an open call for artists. After being selected, he first needed to decide which era of Cash’s long career to spotlight. Kresse read multiple books, watched hours of documentary footage, and consulted with some of Cash’s family members. Ultimately, he settled on the early ’70s.

Then Kresse started playing around with clay. He first considered a pose that suggested Cash the superstar, but the more he thought about it and talked to Johnny—yes, he talks to his work—the more he realized he needed to show Cash the person. “He was full of contradictions, which he fully admitted to—the light and dark sides of himself,” says Kresse.

The Cash statue’s journey to the Capitol hasn’t been without some political hiccups. The Arkansas House had to approve the idea, and some Republicans objected due to “the drugs, the alcohol, the women, that kind of thing,” as one lawmaker put it in 2019. (Their alternate suggestion: Walmart founder Sam Walton.) But in the end, Cash got the nod.

Kresse sees Cash’s struggles as part of the singer’s story. That’s why, in a departure from the typical heroic poses found around Statuary Hall, the sculptor is depicting Cash in a reflective moment, his face cast downward. In one hand, he holds a Bible; the other grasps the strap of his guitar, slung over his back. “The body language from across the room has to start telling the story,” says Kresse, “and then it has to unveil itself by layers as you get closer. The payoff at the end will be the expression on the face.”

Now that Kresse has finalized the design, the next step will be to create a full-size foam version using a 3-D scanner and lathe. Eventually, the Crucible Bronze Foundry in Norman, Oklahoma, will make a negative ceramic cast, into which 2,000-degree bronze will be poured.

Kresse, who has previously sculpted musicians such as Al Green and Levon Helm, hopes his statue will be ready for an unveiling at the Capitol by the end of the year. For now, he’s just focused on getting it right. “If you were doing a documentary on him, you would have an hour and a half to flesh things out and you’d still fall short,” he says. “To try to capture Cash in a frozen moment is particularly challenging. I feel such responsibility to just nail this one.”

This article appears in the May 2022 issue of Washingtonian.

Jessica Ruf
Assistant Editor