Sculptor Alan LeQuire is well-known for his iconic Nashville sculptures, including Musica (above), a centerpiece of the city’s Music Row, and a full-scale recreation of Athena, which resides in Music City’s Parthenon. He is also a recreational musician. For the past 10 years, the artist has dedicated a part of his talents to a very personal project—creating giant portrait heads of some of his music heroes.
Growing up in Music City, and the son of two recreational musicians, Alan LeQuire took a natural early interest in music. “My father was a doctor and he played the violin, and my mother was an artist and she played the piano. They would play classical music together when I was real young,” he recalls. He took piano lessons as a young child, but it was the banjo that became his instrument of choice in high school. “I’ve been fooling around with it for a very long time, but haven’t gotten any better at it,” the 56-year-old says modestly.
Back then, there were lots of influences—rock and roll, American folk, and blues—but there were a couple artists that really attracted LeQuire’s attention. “I’m a real big fan of Jimmy Driftwood,” he says. “He came to Nashville a few times to be recorded here and I met him back when I was in high school. My parents collected his records, so I have all those records and I love playing Jimmy Driftwood songs.”
And then there was Paul Robeson, whose “Old Man River” has long resonated with LeQuire. “That was just a part of my childhood, and that was long before I learned anything about Robeson and his life,” explains LeQuire. Then, during a period when he was feeling kind of down, LeQuire happened to watch a PBS American Masters biography on the artist. “That’s what kind of opened my mind to the sort of suffering other artists had been through,” he says, and that led to the creation of his Cultural Heroes series.
There are currently seven Cultural Heroes—Marian Anderson Woody Guthrie, Billie Holiday, Huddie Ledbetter, Paul Robeson, Bessie Smith, and Josh White—Louis Armstrong will be completed this summer. All of them are musicians and activists of the early 20th century, who put their careers on the line for what they believed in, often facing persecution. The colossal size of the heads is patterned after the display of heads of the Kings of France at the Cluny Museum in Paris.
One common thread among LeQuire’s Cultural Heroes is that all of the musical icons are represented at a moment when they are performing and lost in their music, in what is often referred to as a “flow state.” LeQuire explains that this state is something common to both music and other art forms. “In my sculpture making I’m constantly practicing the craft to get better at it, but the goal is not really perfection, it is the flow state—a state of complete absorption where your conscious mind doesn’t really enter in. It’s the same for musicians; once you’ve mastered your craft, then the expression sort of happens … it is released by your unconscious mind. Playing music is actually kind of a model for me of what it should feel like when I’m doing other things like sculpting.”
But there’s one important difference in the musical flow state, he explains. “The appeal for the sculpture or painting is that, when you come out of the flow state, you have a three-dimensional object that is permanent, and sort of out of time. But with music, it’s an event that happens in time. I thought about this a lot with the Cultural Heroes because in the period when they were performing, the majority of their work was lost.”
But there are a few recordings, and LeQuire says he listens to them while creating their portraits; it’s music he’s been listening to his whole life. And, being a musician himself helps him relate to them. “So they have their mouths open and their eyes are shut, or rolled back, and they are completely lost in the moment,” he says. “[Being a musician] helps me to understand that feeling, and that was the moment I was trying to capture in their faces.”
LeQuire is quick to add that he’s not a performer; most of his music making takes place right in his studio. Sometimes he takes a musical break from his art, and other times his music making buddies stop by with their instruments for an impromptu jam session.
Several instruments hang on the wall of his studio at the ready. “When my buddies show up we pull the instruments down and play a song or two,” he says.
LeQuire owns several unique instruments including a Windsor zither, an English version of a five-string banjo. “I found it completely by accident in a junk store when I was in high school,” he says. “It has a really mellow tone—not the typical Earl Scruggs kind of sound.” He also has a Gibson L-7 acoustic archtop that was purchased for him by a French jazz musician friend, as well as a three-quarter-size parlor guitar from the 1920s that belonged to his grandmother.
“I occasionally buy old junkers and fix them up,” he says. “Banjos are quite easy to repair so I do it as a hobby.”
In the future, LeQuire may expand his Cultural Heroes series to include other types of artists. “I may do some visual artists from the same time who were also persecuted,” he says. “They used their art for creating social change, and I’m really drawn to that subject. I would also like to eventually do some contemporary artists who are doing great work in terms of social activism.”
This article is from our July-August 2012 issue. Click to order!