Not all contemporary statues celebrating iconic figures of American history are as dire as the recent travesty at Frederick Douglass Circle in New York perpetrated by sculptor Gabriel Koren. During a recent trip to John Wayne Airport in Southern California, your correspondent had the pleasure of seeing the massive nine foot statue of Wayne sculpted by Robert Summers. It is a terrific piece of work.
The airport was renamed the John Wayne Airport in 1979, shortly after Wayne’s death, and is the first airport named after an actor. The statue was dedicated in 1982, and stands on a two-tier platform so visitors can get close to the figure.
Artist Robert Summers (born 1940 in Cleburne, Texas) began creating figures of animals with bread dough as a toddler, and drew and sculpted consistently during his school years. He has had no formal art training, except for a brief course mixing colors when he was 15 years old, but he managed to master a variety of mediums, including pastel, pencil and oil. He now divides his time between painting and sculpting. His western-themed landscapes have a pleasing command of color and a real sense of composition.
Summers also serves as an Associate Director of the Creation Evidence Museum, proving once and for all that there is not necessarily a correlation between artistic talent and intelligence.
The Wayne statue stands in the lobby of the airport’s newest terminal, gazing out into the California desert through large plate-glass walls. It is somewhat kitschily augmented with an enormous American flag behind the figure; but, even with that misstep the effect is impressive.
Summers paid enormous attention to detail, and western film buffs would be gratified to see that he has captured Wayne’s inimitable walk and stance, let alone face and expression. Summers is also sure to include Wayne’s belt buckle, first worn in 1948’s Red River (directed by Howard Hawks), and worn subsequently by Wayne in western films for the rest of his life. The costume would appear (at first glance) to be the one worn by Wayne in The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), and Summers accurately captures the drapery of clothes on the moving figure.
The question of whether Wayne was an accomplished actor or not is the topic of perhaps a future post, but his impact on western films and Americana in general is mighty and immeasurable. Perhaps no figure has done more for the modern Western film (inheriting the mantle of both Tom Mix and William S. Hart) than Wayne, though perhaps the genre needed Clint Eastwood to maintain its vitality for the Baby Boomer generation. Searchers of western Americana would find a visit to the John Wayne Airport a worthy pilgrimage, pilgrim.