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Christ of the Ozarks

NOVEMBER 21, 2009

It was early summer in the Chigger Latitudes and the bugs were just shaping up for the season. Mockingbirds turned somersaults in the treetops and blue jays dive-bombed squirrels in the underbrush. It was mid-morning. The sun was still low in the sky and the air was crisp. By mid afternoon the heat would be oppressive, the humidity would clog the pores and tourists would be heading back to their hotel rooms to sleep off their noon meals.

My brothers and our wives were going off to lunch themselves. I tend not to eat of an afternoon, so I took my sketchbook and threaded my way through the underbrush in search of the religious icon I had come to draw.

Whenever I travel, I take a sketchbook and try to record whatever catches my eye. When I’ve done this in Europe, Asia or South America, I’ve found that it often attracts a small crowd of watchers. In the US that’s rarely a problem. Here people tend to ignore artists at work and in general, I prefer to be ignored. But this afternoon – some years ago – I had a brief encounter that puts the role of the artist into its proper perspective in America in the Age of Oprah. I thought I'd write a few words about it here.

This happened to me in the Ozark Mountains (which are not really mountains) where there's a colossal statue (which is not really colossal) called Christ of the Ozarks.

Short (for a Colossus) and rather stumpy, Christ of the Ozarks stands seven stories tall and is reputed by locals to be the third tallest Jesus in the world. It sits atop a hill called Magnetic Mountain near Eureka Springs Arkansas, just south of the Missouri border. The statue is the chief attraction of a religious retreat that includes a re-creation of the Holy Land, a “Great Wall of the Ozarks,” and Hatchet Hall, the final home of Carrie Nation, one-time axe-wielding scourge of the nation’s saloon keepers.

According to the tourist literature, Christ of the Ozarks was erected in 1966 by Gerald L. K. Smith, an anti-Semitic preacher and political rabble-rouser. In the 1930's, Smith was connected to Huey Long, the political boss of Louisiana. When the Kingfish was assassinated, Smith took over his Share Our Wealth campaign. Maybe he decided to share some wealth in Arkansas.

The statue reportedly cost Smith $5,000 to build, although some say he ran out of money before it was done – and that's why the statue appears to be buried at the knees. Still others say the thing was once taller, but had to be truncated to keep the local authorities from installing a red warning beacon on its head. Whatever accounts for its midget proportions, once I’d seen it, I knew I’d have to draw it.

Christ the redeemer/Rio de Janeiro images/christ.jpg

Inspired, so to speak, by the statue of Christ the Redeemer in the harbor of Rio de Janeiro, Christ of the Ozarks is the work of sculptor Emmet Sullivan, otherwise known for populating the wild west with numerous dinosaur sculptures. His other chief works are reported to be the dinosaurs at Dinosaur Park in Rapid City, South Dakota, another dinosaur in Wall, South Dakota and still more dinosaurs at Dinosaur World in Beaver, Arkansas.

You might think that being the Praxiletes of giant reptile sculptors would constitute sufficient credentials for casting the world’s third largest Jesus – but no – Sullivan also claimed to have been part of Gutzon Borglum’s crew in gouging out Mount Rushmore. That might be so – Jesus of the Ozarks displays much of the same monumental hubris. Yet unlike the finely-blasted likenesses on Rushmore, the face of Christ at Eureka Springs has more the delicacy of an enlarged bowling trophy. His blank eyes look out over the hills with the same spectral glare one sees in the eyes of the Pantocrators of the Byzantine school.

Although I'd spent much of my childhood along the northwestern border of Arkansas, I'd never visited the concrete Jesus until my brothers Jim and Tom found out about it and advised me that I shouldn’t miss it. And since Tom was graduating from college in Missouri that year, we used the drive home from commencement to spend a few days there with our wives.

In the 19th century, Eureka Springs was renowned for its healing waters and had been a prime destination for wealthy layabouts from all over the country. A century later, in the era of entertainment complexes and theme parks, it's no longer cool to be seen spending a week or two wallowing in medicinal waters. So sometime in the swinging sixties, the local wheeler-dealers began casting about for a new way to fetch in tourists.

We arrived at Eureka Springs late at night after a long drive and bedded down without supper. Early the next morning we set out to visit Hatchet Hall and the celebrated Holy Land.

In those days, the Holy Land that now surrounds the statue was still a Holy Land-in-Progress. What we saw that day was mostly a table model the size of a Lionel Train landscape dotted with small facsimiles of Biblical attractions to come: there was a miniature Tabernacle, a tiny Sea of Galilee and a little stable with a manger. I can't remember what else they may have had on tap, but as a theme park, it wasn't exactly Disneyland. Indeed, I can recall only one life-size installation even under construction: a Noah’s Ark of sorts, and even there, the animals on duty at the Ark – ducks, pigs, roosters, hens and billy goats – might have led one to guess that it was Farmer Alfalfa getting ready to set to sea, rather than the Biblical Noah.

I confess that in approaching Christ of the Ozarks, I lacked a certain spirit of reverence. The statue rises above a clearing in the forest and stares out across the highlands that are billed as mountains in these parts with outstretched arms that jut stiffly from its sides like wings on a totem pole: the Saviour appears either to be blessing the hillside or waiting for his cross to be delivered. His most distinctive features, the straight lines of his body, the tapered shoulders and rounded neck make him look as if he was fashioned after a bottle of Johnny Walker Red. Sizing him up as a thing to draw, I could only wish that the authorities had prevailed and installed the blinking red light on his head, or better yet, his nose.

In front of the statue was a roundabout lined with gazebos. Each one had benches for sitting, reflecting and praying. Loudspeakers played and replayed country western gospels. A group of ladies had just arrived by bus from Michigan and the gazebos were crammed full of them.

At first, as I settled down to work, I thought I'd draw the statue from the rear. That seemed to be the best angle from which to capture its remarkable silhouette. But after a few minutes of blocking it in with vine charcoal, I wiped the drawing off, got up and moved around to the front. I decided I'd rather capture the look in its vacant eyes.

While the gospel music blared from the loudspeakers and the ladies from Michigan sat in the shade of the gazebos, fanning themselves and swatting flies, I sat cross-legged on the ground below the statue and drew. I liked the new angle I had picked and the drawing went quickly.

But after a few minutes, I noticed a tall figure in a bright yellow jump suit lurking behind me – watching me, pacing back and forth, saying nothing. For several minutes I pretended not to notice him, but bit by bit, he crept up on me. Finally he was directly behind me, peering over my shoulder, breathing heavily. I turned around to look at him.

“How ya doing?” I said.

“Jes' fine," he replied. How you?

There was a brief, stilted silence. Then he said:

"I been watchin’ ya. Mind if I watch?”

I told him to go right ahead.

He was a large middle-aged man with weathered features and rough hands. His face was the color of a brown paper bag except for a sharp tan line across his forehead. Above it, his skin was nearly white. I guessed he had spent the better part of his life in the sun, maybe on a tractor, probably wearing a baseball cap. In his bright yellow jumpsuit he looked like a Tweety Bird.

He stood behind me for several minutes, watching silently as I drew, then he said:

“That’s a pretty good little sketch. Did you draw that freehand?”

I said I did.

“Well, that’s pretty good.”

I thanked him for the compliment and kept on drawing.

There was another brief silence, then:

“You mind if I ask ya a question?”

I told him to shoot.

“How long did it take ya to draw that little sketch?”

“Oh, about 15 minutes, I reckon.”

“Well, that’s pretty good.”

I thanked him again.

More silence, then:

“You mind if I ask ya another question?”

“Go right ahead.”

“I been watchin’ ya for a little while. You was over yonder a while ago. Was you doing a little sketch over there too?”

I said I was.

"Well, how long did it take ya t'do that one?”

“Oh, about 15 minutes I guess.”

“Well, that’s pretty good.”

Again, more silence, then:

“Now, you fixin’ to any more little sketches?”

I said I might.

“Well if you do, how long d’ya reckon it’ll take you to do one of them?”

Oh, maybe 15 minutes.”

Well, that’s what I reckoned.”

There was another prolonged silence, with no sounds but the gospel music blasting from the loudspeakers, the buzzing of insects in the clearing, the whirring of cicadas in the trees and the heavy breathing of the canary bird behind me. Then, as I was nearly finished with the drawing, he cleared his throat.

D' ya mind if I ask ya another question?”

Not at all,” I said, as I sprayed the drawing from a small can of fixative.

Now when you finish all these little sketches. Whatta ya fixin’ to do with 'em?”

“Oh,” I said, getting up and dusting off the charcoal from my hands,“I reckon when I get enough of ‘em, I’ll take ‘em to the county fair, sell ‘em, make some money, buy a camera, come back and take some real pictures.”

His weathered face spread into a big wide grin.“There ya go!” he said. “There ya go!”

And I gathered that the wisecrack had finally made sense for him of an otherwise inscrutable situation.

By this time, it was noon. The sun was overhead. The ladies from Michigan were falling out from the gazebos and falling in for their procession to lunch. The loudspeakers were repeating gospels I had heard two or three times by now, and I decided not to do any more drawings of the sawed-off Saviour – too good a chance that my friend the yellow bird might hang around to time me as I drew – or to quiz me some more.

I dusted the charcoal off my shirtfront, thanked the gentleman for his company and wished him a good life. He smiled and praised the little sketch one last time, then strode off in the direction of Noah’s Ark and the barnyard menagerie that awaited him there.

I headed out in the opposite direction through the underbrush to see more of the wonders of Eureka Springs.

My next stop was the Great Wall of the Ozarks.

© 2009 Brad Holland