Whether it’s his image carved into the side of a mountain in South Dakota or his memory forever enshrined in a memorial in the nation’s capital, Abraham Lincoln’s likeness is everywhere. Now, thanks to Urbana artist Mike Major, Lincoln’s likeness will be visible in downtown Dayton as a larger-than-life 11-foot bronze statue.
“It is a humbling honor to create the Lincoln monument,” Major said. “I have read more about this president than any other person. Completing this sculpture brings deep personal pleasure to pay tribute to one that I truly honor.”
Commissioned by The Lincoln Society of Dayton – founded to commemorate the anti-slavery speech delivered by Lincoln at the courthouse in downtown Dayton on Sept. 17, 1859 – the statue will be permanently placed on display outside the old courthouse, which now serves as a venue rental located at the corner of Third and Main streets.
Major, who was born in Dayton and later attended the Dayton Art Institute, said he was approached six years ago to see if he had any interest in sculpting the Lincoln statue. He did, but the job was first offered to another artist.
“I certainly was interested, but initially The Lincoln Society of Dayton chose another sculptor from Illinois,” he said. “That arrangement did not work out, and they came back to me and offered the commission about three years ago.”
Having created over several dozen bronze pieces throughout his career, Major said, the Lincoln statue has taken him to new heights.
“This is the tallest bronze that I have done to date,” he said. “The closest in size was a bronze eagle for Ashland University with a 14-foot wingspan. Most of the other public monuments have been 8-feet tall or life-size.
“Logistics are more difficult with larger monuments, but size is important, so it is a challenge worth taking on,” Major added.
Having spent the past 40 years perfecting the craft of sculpting, Major spent four months forming clay into a likeness of Lincoln from 1859.
“To my knowledge, no photograph of Lincoln giving the 1859 Dayton speech exists,” Major said. “In addition to looking at hundreds of photos of Lincoln to do this monument, I am using a life-casting of his face made in Chicago just a few weeks before his assassination. It is called the Volk life mask.”
“The difference in his appearance before being elected president was that he had no beard yet as he campaigned in Dayton in 1859,” Major said. “That is why he is depicted beardless in this monument.”
Major, who has spent the past few days putting the finishing touches on his end of the project in his studio at 119 Miami St. in Urbana, said the statue is on its way to Illinois to be cast in bronze.
The statue is scheduled to be unveiled in downtown Dayton on Sept. 16, 2016.
Honoring area hero
While working on the Lincoln statue, Major was also hard at work on a life-size bronze statue of Miami County native William Pitsenbarger, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2000.
Born in Piqua on July 8, 1944, Pitsenbarger was a pararescue medical specialist in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War.
According to the biographical information provided in the program issued during his Medal of Honor ceremony, on April 11, 1966, Pitsenbarger was dropped into the jungle of Vietnam by helicopter in order to aid wounded soldiers. Knowing his life was in danger, Pitsenbarger refused to evacuate and is credited with saving the lives on nine wounded soldiers. Later that day, he was fatally wounded on the battlefield.
To honor Pitsenbarger, the Friends of the Piqua Parks along with Piqua Central High School’s Class of 1962, commissioned Major to create a life-size bronze statue of the fallen soldier, which will be placed on the grounds of the Pitsenbarger Sports Complex located at South Street and McKinley Avenue in Piqua.
Major said the Pitsenbarger statue, which took six months to sculpt and cast in bronze, consists of one feature different from the other soldier statues he’s done.
“The primary difference with this soldier is that a number of his high school classmates who are involved wanted the smiling face that they remembered,” he said. “This is the first smiling soldier that I have had the opportunity to do.
“He was an Air Force medic and cared deeply for his fellow soldiers as well as family and friends in Ohio, so the smile represents the man as they remember him and makes for an appealing monument, I think,” Major added.
Passed up by the draft due to poor vision while studying at Ohio University, Major said, being able to create the statue provided him the chance to honor a man who served and died for his country.
“I have always had mixed feelings about not qualifying for military service,” he said. “I was opposed to that war (Vietnam), but as a son of a veteran and feeling a sense of duty, I am at last able to provide this service as an artist, honoring my country’s heroes.”
The Pitsenbarger statue will be unveiled during a ceremony set for Nov. 9 at the Pitsenbarger Sports Complex.
Joshua Keeran may be reached at 937-652-1331 (ext. 1774) or on Twitter @UDCKeeran.