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President Gee walks the line of tribute with Johnny Cash statue

Courtesy of Herb Williams.

About 150,000 black Crayola crayons were used to sculpt the life-sized statue of Johnny Cash that sits in President E. Gordon Gee’s Bexley home, and it was put together one piece at a time.

“I knew Johnny Cash,” Gee said during his April 23 meeting with The Lantern. “I’m a great fan of country music and when he died, I was very sad.”

Cash, a country music legend who was born in 1932, was based in Nashville, where Gee was chancellor at Vanderbilt University from 2000-2007. Cash died in Baptist Hospital in Nashville due to diabetes complications in 2003, but Gee said he met Cash, often referred to as The Man in Black, before he moved to Tennessee.

“I actually saw him one time before I moved to Nashville and got to know him a little bit,” Gee said. “I actually saw him in an airport wearing a big, long, black coat and a big, black hat and he was a caricature of himself. And he was a big man. I mean, he’s quite a big man.”

Cash was about 6 feet 2 inches tall, and the statue in Gee’s house measures the same. And attaining this one-to-one ratio with crayons was one of the hardest parts about sculpting Cash for artist Herb Williams, based in Nashville.

“It was very difficult to get a likeness being a one-to-one ratio,” Williams said. “To get real likeness and to tell that it’s Johnny, I had to rely on the stance.”

The Cash statue is holding its guitar in almost the exact stance the real Cash used to hold his instrument.

“Johnny Cash played the Martin, played a big Martin, which is a larger guitar,” Gee said. “But he did that on stage, and you know he held it high, which is very interesting, he had a very, very familiar style.”

And almost everyone who sees the sculpture says the artist did Cash’s recognizable stance justice.

“I just watched ‘Walk The Line’ last weekend for like, the third time, and the way he’s holding the guitar is very accurate,” said Stacy Gabrielle, Crayola spokeswoman.

“Walk The Line” is a 2005 biographical film of Cash’s life.

Although the statue is like Cash in height and stance, they differ in weight. Williams said the sculpture, which took about six months to complete, weighs about 350 pounds. The statue has a fiberglass underbody and wheels to make it more moveable.

“When you have that many crayons, it becomes almost impossible to move,” Williams said. “It took a long time and I worked with several different assistants to work with the form. … It was a labor of love.”

Gee said he uses the wheels whenever his grandkids come over for a visit for fear of them breaking it.

“When I have my grandchildren come, I wheel it into the bathroom and lock the door because you can imagine it.” Gee said. “I would be absolutely hysteric.”

Gee said he doesn’t maintain the room that houses the sculpture at a specific temperature, he just keeps it out of direct sunlight. And Williams said he tells most of his clients that rather than keeping his sculptures in a rusty cage, they should display them, but with caution.

“You treat it like you would any other work of art,” he said. “You put it in your front window, it’ll fade.”

Williams, who at the time was very interested in doing iconic figures, said he was surprised he had never thought of sculpting Cash before and was glad Gee had asked him to do it. Gee said that although when some people first see the statue, they mistake Cash for Elvis Presley, almost everyone who sees it is impressed.

“It’s a wonderful piece. A lot of people envy the fact that I have it,” Gee said. “I promised (Williams) and he promised me that he’d only make one of them, so it has not been replicated.”

Bill Miller, who was friends with the statue’s inspiration for more than 40 years and co-founded JohnnyCash.com with Cash, said he thinks even the legend himself would’ve been impressed.

“I think he would’ve been wide-eyed and said, ‘Get outta here, lemme see this,'” Miller said. “Frankly, he would’ve been amused that 150,000 crayons now composed the likeness of him.”

James Larcus, a third-year in sport and leisure studies who works as a presidential host at events at Gee’s Bexley home, said the sculpture is always a conversation piece for Gee’s guests.

“This past Tuesday, I was working an event and there was a little down time before it started and I was talking to some guests,” Larcus said. “They thought it was really cool because it’s made out of straight crayons.”

Gee commissioned Williams to build the statue for him four or five years ago and said he bought the crayons himself. Although neither Gee nor Williams could give an exact cost of the statue, Williams said he usually did projects for about $60,000-$75,000, including the cost of crayons.

Williams said he goes through a few million crayons a year, although he recycles a lot of them and works with charities to donate some of them to schools. He is one of the only individuals who has an account with Crayola.

“In order to have a direct account with Crayola, you have to buy a very large quantity of product,” Gabrielle said. “We sell direct to Herb because he buys in such large quantities. … He goes through millions of crayons, many more than we would go through in our lifetime.”

Typically, Williams buys 50-pound cases of 3,000 crayons of a single color. He said 30,000 to 50,000 crayons cost a few thousand dollars.

Williams said he has been doing crayon sculptures since 2002 and Gabrielle said he’s had an account for several years. Although he wants to remain independent, he said he chose to use Crayola over other brands because he likes the crayon’s quality, smell and authenticity.

“If I were to make my own, it wouldn’t have the same association,” he said.

Miller said the authenticity and uniqueness of this statue are what Cash would’ve loved about it and what will help keep his memory alive.

“This would definitely be the most unusual piece ever created in his honor, that’s for sure. I don’t even have to reach back into the archives of my brain for that,” Miller said. “Things like these are what help keep Johnny Cash fresh in the minds of the general public.”

He said he hopes this life-size tribute will do just that.

“You know, these guys, because of who they are tend to be bigger than life, but in person, they’re very interesting people, and kind people,” Gee said. “Some of them not so kind, but Johnny Cash, I think, was a unique American singer.”


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