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Illumination magazine.
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Brett Grill, sculptor and professor of fine art, with clay maquettes representing the nation’s 38th President.

Monumental Achievement

Thursday, August 8, 1974. The crowd at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue waxed and waned through the morning, but even the occasional downpour never completely cleared the sidewalks. Within the gates of the Executive Mansion, a steady stream of men and women moved with grim resolve, ignoring — or perhaps pretending to ignore — the curious stares of those beyond the fences. Among these insiders was a tall but unassuming man in a sober blue suit, Gerald R. Ford, a 25-year veteran of the House of Representatives who, eight months earlier, had been appointed vice president of the United States. Ford met with the president, then left without comment to the media.

As the wet morning gave way to an overcast afternoon, a buzz shot through the crowd on the street. The president’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, had just released a widely anticipated but still stunning statement: At 9:00 p.m., President Richard M. Nixon would announce his intention to walk away from America’s highest office.

“By taking this action,” Nixon said that night, “I hope that I will have hastened the start of the process of healing which is so desperately needed in America.”

At 11:35 a.m. the next day, Nixon submitted his resignation to Henry Kissinger, then the U.S. secretary of state. Half an hour later Chief Justice Warren Burger administered the oath of office to Gerald Ford. The new president only obliquely referred to the scandal that had felled his predecessor: “I assume the Presidency under extraordinary circumstances,” Ford said. “ …This is an hour of history that troubles our minds and hurts our hearts.”

So began the brief tenure of the nation’s 38th chief executive, a two-and-a-half year term that, while not without controversy, generally accomplished the “process of healing” that Nixon and others had urged for the Watergate-weary nation. When Ford died in 2006 at age 93, it was this legacy of reconciliation that political leaders emphasized. "With his quiet integrity, common sense, and kind instincts, President Ford helped heal our land and restore public confidence in the presidency," President George W. Bush said, sentiments almost universally shared.

J. Brett Grill, an assistant professor of art at MU, hadn’t even been born on the day Nixon resigned. But growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Ford’s hometown, Grill couldn’t help but breathe in the aura of local pride and good feeling surrounding Ford’s presidency. When the Gerald R. Ford Foundation, based in Grand Rapids, invited artists to compete for a commission to create a statue of Ford for the U.S. Capitol, Grill jumped at the chance to submit an entry.

Fewer than 15 sculptors received requests to submit models during last summer’s competition. From this group the foundation narrowed the field to proposals from three finalists. Grill’s was among them.

Grill, 30, cuts a tall, lithe figure; a casual observer might reasonably mistake him for a model in one of his own drawing classes. He says he prepared his entry by reading biographies of Ford, viewing archival videos, reading eulogies and tributes composed by Ford’s friends and colleagues, and, finally, examining hundreds of photographs of the former president. The photographs were useful, he adds, but only to a point.

“Sculpture ends up being awkward when artists try to capture a moment in the same the way that a photograph captures a moment,” Grill says. “Sculpture exerts presence in a way that the photograph doesn’t. It communicates a different sense of time and occupies a longer space of time than a photograph, or even a painting.”

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Published by the Office of Research.

©2009 Curators of the University of Missouri. Click here to contact the editor.

 

Illumination home. Spring 2009 Table of Contents.