News & Politics

This Melting Statue of Abe Lincoln Was All of Us This Weekend

The artist says the sculpture was meant as a reflection on Lincoln's abolitionist legacy. Now it says something about climate change, too.

As of Monday, June 24, 2024, this wax Abraham Lincoln statue had melted so much, it was headless. Photo by Omega Ilijevich.

If you spent any time outdoors this weekend, you might have felt like you were liquefying amidst the thick air and beating sun. Unfortunately for one wax statue in Shaw, the heat wave was enough to actually melt it.

The statue is an art installation by Sandy Williams IV, a Richmond artist who has made wax versions of historical monuments around the country, mostly on the East Coast. In collaboration with CulturalDC, a nonprofit that helps artists display their work around the city, Williams made a wax model of a seated Lincoln, based on the Lincoln Memorial, to be displayed on the lawn of Garrison Elementary School. The school stands on the site of Camp Barker, which was a contraband camp during the Civil War, where freed and escaped slaves would come to get education, medical care, and employment to rebuild their lives. According to Cultural DC’s website for the installation, Lincoln often visited the refugees at Camp Barker while he was president.

The first iteration of Williams’ Lincoln was last October. It contained 100 wicks, and was intended to be burned slowly over time by passersby, who were asked (via writing on the statue’s base) to blow out their flame before leaving the site. But before the statue was officially unveiled, Williams said, a group of people lit all the wicks and let them burn, leaving the statue a dripping carcass of what it had been.

Because of the short life of the first statue, CulturalDC, along with the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities (CAH) and the school asked Williams to recast it for the new year. The second statue was installed in February and only has 10 wicks, making it harder for it to melt down all at once. So far, passersby haven’t melted it much.

Until this weekend, when temperatures hit 100 degrees, and Lincoln’s head began to fall backwards.

Williams, who uses they/them pronouns, said they didn’t expect the wax to be affected by the heat wave at all. The wax they used has a congealing point of 140 degrees, meaning it should be harder to melt than this, and their past public wax sculptures have never experienced this.

Williams said they hope observers find deep meaning upon reflection of the melted Lincoln. Their original vision was to juxtapose Lincoln’s legacy with that of the Camp Barker site, and cause passersby to think about the president’s record as an abolitionist. Now, though, they said the statue can also send a message about the effects of climate change.

“A lot of questions are around whether my intentions were to melt this thing in this way,” said Williams. “But this is a climate crisis that we’re all dealing with, and I think the piece is reflecting that, despite what our intentions were for the project.”

Artist Sandy Williams at the statue’s reveal in February 2024.

The statue is intended to be up through September. Quincy Jones, of CulturalDC told us: “We anticipated that the statue would change over time due to environmental factors, and this transformation is part of the installation’s intended experience. Ultimately, the decision to keep or remove the statue will be made by the principal at Garrison Elementary. We reached out to Principal Brigham Kiplinger immediately upon noticing the changes, but we have not yet heard back.”

“I’d be fine with letting it continue melting,” said Williams.

Helen Huiskes
Editorial Fellow