Monumental Achievement

An MU Artist Honors Gerald R. Ford, Icon of Presidential Integrity

By Charles E. Reineke

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 Milhous 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.”

f all the things he learned about Ford — of his star power on two national championship football teams at the University of Michigan, his distinguished service in World War II, his years of leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives — it was the former president’s firm resolve in the face of crisis that impressed him most, Grill says. His proposed statue reflected this.

“It was meant to embody the idea of someone standing up to serve their country when called,” he says, gesturing toward a two-foot-high maquette depicting Ford, circa 1976, standing, torso thrust forward, his face projecting an image of quiet confidence and resolve. “Did I do that by looking at one particular photograph of him jumping up out of a chair at some particular point in time? Absolutely not. Again, it would have seemed awkward if I had done that.”

Grill eventually created more than 25 maquettes before settling on the model he submitted. A few weeks later the call came: He had won the commission. The monument will become part of the U.S. Capitol's National Statuary Hall Collection. Some 3 million to 5 million people visit the Capitol each year, where more than two centuries of sculpture, paintings and murals are displayed.

Grill is best known for his painting, mostly large intricate works that are, by design, suggestive of the labor-intensive techniques of past masters. "The paintings I make are done using indirect technique,” he says, “which involves the building up of several layers on the canvas. It’s an old way of painting, and it takes a long time. I like being able to, sort of, live with the stuff I make. I find that in that period of time I gain a new understanding of it, something I would likely not have had if I’d needed to just whip it out, to turn projects around quickly.” Such a temperament lends itself to the time-intensive task of sculpting figures. And in fact, he says, as a student it was sculpting that fired his creative impulses.

“I ended up in sculpture because it was being taught in the way that I wanted to learn,” he says, citing the influence of noted University of Michigan sculptor and professor Louis Marinaro. “Initially, as an undergrad, I was really conservative in my tastes and my approach to art. And I was disillusioned by the fact that a lot of the classes that I’d go to weren’t taught with any strong sense of what right and wrong were.” Grill laughs and rolls his eyes, before continuing. “There is a tremendous amount of plurality in the arts: what you can do really isn’t subjected to any limits any more. So it was comforting to me to have some sense of what was correct and incorrect,” he says. “My views have certainly changed a lot since then, but at the time I was drawn to [Marinaro], who was teaching sculpture very traditionally.”

In 1817, Goethe famously told a meeting of the Society of German Sculptors that the “… topmost aim of all plastic art is to render the dignity of man within the compass of the human form.” Almost two centuries of sculptural innovation has done much to contradict Goethe’s narrowly humanistic view, but his sentiment still carries weight — particularly in hallowed public spaces like the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, the ornately decorated space that serves as a temple to American democracy.

Designed by William Thornton in 1793, the Capitol Rotunda is modeled after the interior of the Pantheon, the ancient architectural masterpiece dedicated to the worship of Imperial Rome’s guiding deities. America’s version of this sacred enclosure, appropriately, includes sculpted images of our democracy’s decidedly human heroes, mostly past presidents.

The monumental hallways connecting the Rotunda to the houses of Congress, along with other designated spaces in the Capitol, are also adorned with historic statuary, two from each state. By law each must represent a U.S. citizen “illustrious for historic renown or for distinguished civic or military service.” Missouri’s contribution to this collection includes Thomas Hart Benton, the lawyer and U.S. Senator who was instrumental in Missouri’s quest for statehood, along with Benton’s friend Francis Blair. Blair, an influential attorney, politician and emancipation advocate, is generally credited with leading the complex political and military maneuverings that held Missouri for the Union in 1861. Both sculptures were carved in marble by Alexander Doyle, one of the most prolific monument-makers of his day.

With the consent of Congress, Grill’s Ford will replace Charles H. Niehaus’ marble statue of Zachariah T. Chandler, a 19th century merchant and U.S. Senator who is remembered today chiefly as one of the founders of the Republican Party.

When completed later this year, the Ford statue will be unveiled during a ceremony in the Rotunda and displayed there for up to six months. It will then be moved to a permanent location in the Capitol as designated by Congress’ Joint Committee on the Library.

“When you walk around the rotunda of the Capitol building, there are all sorts of histories on display there,” Grill says. Not all are worth celebrating, he adds, especially those that depict violence against American Indians.

“Some of them are embarrassing. In particular around the Rotunda there are a couple of friezes with Native American themes that are really embarrassing and kind of horrifying in a way. It’s interesting for me to be involved in a project that’s going to put something in a space like that. One of the things I really love about this country is that those things are still on view; the histories they record haven’t been blotted out because we’re embarrassed by them.”

Gerald Ford, on the other hand, left nothing for the nation to be embarrassed about, though he had his detractors while in office. As president, Ford was assailed for economic policies that critics said contributed to a worsening bout of “stagflation” — rising prices coupled with high unemployment and stagnant economic growth. During Ford’s tenure the Vietnam War ended ignominiously, with harrowing scenes of packed American helicopters leaving Saigon while desperate South Vietnamese officials and their families looked on in despair. And, most famously, Ford was lambasted by those who felt betrayed by his pardon of Nixon, a move some said smacked of a secret quid pro quo.

But just minutes after handing over the reigns of power in January 1977, a kinder view of Ford began to emerge. "For myself and for our nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land," said Ford’s successor Jimmy Carter. Years later, at a memorial service for Ford at Grace Memorial Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., Carter recalled those words as he recounted the bond of respect and friendship he and Ford established in subsequent years.

“For my own benefit, while I was president, I kept him fully informed about everything that I did in the domestic or international arena,” Carter said. “In fact, he was given a thorough briefing almost every month from the head of my White House staff or my national security adviser. And Jerry never came to the Washington area without being invited to have lunch with me at the White House. We always cherished those memories of now perhaps a long-lost bipartisan interrelationship.”

At a eulogy delivered in Washington, Henry Kissinger also spoke of Ford’s winning civility. “Unassuming and without guile, Gerald Ford undertook to restore the confidence of Americans in their political institutions and purposes. Never having aspired to national office, he was not consumed by driving ambition. In his understated way, he did his duty as a leader, not as a performer playing to the gallery. Gerald Ford had the virtues of small-town America: sincerity, serenity and integrity. As it turned out, the absence of glibness and his artless decency became a political asset, fostering an unusual closeness to leaders around the world, which continued long after he left office.”

It is this aspect of Ford’s personality, the gracious man who set his ego aside in service to the nation, that captivated Grill. “This was the story I wanted to tell with the sculpture,” he says. “Someone who was the healer of a nation; somebody who wasn’t seeking a position of power, but when his country asked he stood up and served with dignity and honor.”

Grill began the task by mining archival material on Ford to determine how the former president physically occupied the space around him. “I went to the photos to grasp the way he carried himself, his body type. Within the particular language of movement that he had, I looked for other elements that would support the story I wanted to tell.”

Next came the modeling, an arduous process. “I spent probably three to four weeks making six-inch maquettes — those little tiny scale models — with a variety of gestures and so on. The other thing I was doing at the same time was getting a feel for the language of sculpture in the Capitol, the specific types of gesture that are iterated over and over again there, and just its figurative sculpture in general.”

Grill’s commission-winning model depicts Ford, by design, as authoritative but approachable; confident in his abilities, but humble in his approach. He is dressed in a suit and vest, his right hand gripping a sheaf of files.

“The [selection] committee was very particular about pointing out that, in several of the reference photos, President Ford was carrying around files and that this was a signifier that he was always at work,” says Grill with a laugh. “That was not part of my original design, but the committee hinted rather forcefully that they would like that in my design. It actually ended up working really well with the pose I had originally chosen.”

Grill expects a mold of the completed statue to ship to the foundry he’s selected, Art Casting of Illinois, Inc. in late spring. If all goes according to plan, the completed work will arrive in Washington for installation this fall.

“Those works of art are going to be there much longer than I’m alive,” Grill says. “It’s nice to be a part of something that will outlive you.”