Iconic blues musician “Blind Willie” McTell’s sculptural likeness in bronze was already inviting people to sit with him on the bench in front of the Statesboro Convention and Visitors Bureau weeks before the Aug. 31 dedication ceremony.
Commissioned by the Blue Mile Committee, sculptor Marc Moulton, a professor in the Betty Foy Sanders Department of Art at Georgia Southern University, worked off-campus in his spare time to model, cast and assemble the life-size seated figure playing a 12-string guitar. Of course McTell, 1898-1959, wasn’t around to pose.
“I think there’s only about four or five photographs that we could find of Willie McTell, and one of them has got him sitting on – it looks like a kind of a wooden kitchen chair – and he’s got his 12-string guitar and it looks like he might be playing for a small crowd,” Moulton explained.
He was first approached with the idea for the sculpture about two and a half years ago by Tim Chapman, then-director of the Averitt Center for the Arts, Moulton said. Chapman showed him a drawing by Scott Foxx. Bob Mikell from the Blue Mile Committee later brought Moulton more information and photos of McTell.
“He looks different in nearly every photograph,” Moulton said. “We just chose what we thought was most appropriate, and from that we go to modeling and mold making and on to casting, and the cast parts then need to be welded together and finished up and textured.”
Those physical processes took more than a year.
For modeling a figure to be cast, sculptors can use clay or other easily shaped materials such as various plastics, he noted. For McTell’s likeness, Moulton went with very recent technology.
“In my case I modeled him digitally, using software … ,” he said. “That gave us a three-dimensional form in the computer, and then that was put out through a number of peripherals, out to physical reality.”
Those peripherals included a 3-D printer and laser cutter.
After the molds were formed, Moulton cast the statue in about 20 pieces with molten bronze from his own small foundry.
When it was finished and transported to the visitors center, Statesboro city employees bolted the finished statue in place on the bench and welded all the bolts.
Moulton, now in his 13th year at Georgia Southern, is a full professor teaching sculptural processes and other art courses. He has a Master of Fine Arts, a maximal degree for artists in his field, from the Ohio State University in Columbus. He grew up in Utah, where he attained his undergraduate degree at Weber State College, now University, in Ogden.
About 30 of Moulton’s sculptures are on public display, including some in more distant states such as Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin, as well as in the Southeast.
Most of his work is what he terms non-objective, or what a layperson might think of as abstract. Local examples include his “Entwined,” a 14-foot-tall stainless steel sculpture installed on the Ogeechee College campus in 2013, and “Ascend,” the 22-foot work, also in steel, that has greeted visitors outside the Center for Art and Theatre at Georgia Southern since 2008.
“Figurative works aren’t the ones I’m tapped most often for, but I certainly enjoyed the Willie McTell process,” Moulton said.
He was paid $20,000 for the sculpture from Statesboro’s national third-place $1 million prize in the corporate-sponsored America’s Best Communities competition. The Blue Mile Foundation Inc. now controls the funds, which were originally received by the Averitt Center with oversight from the city of Statesboro.
“Which for a sculpture of that caliber, that is a steal,” said Mikell, who until recently chaired the Statesboro Stars project for the Blue Mile Committee.
The committee, older than the foundation, led in creating the Blue Mile Plan for the revitalization of South Main Street, which captured the $1 million prize in April 2017.
Costs of bronze sculptures often go “well into six figures,” Mikell noted, and suggested a Google search of the statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. installed at the state Capitol last year. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported the eight-foot statue’s price as $300,000.
Them Statesboro Blues
Of course McTell is closely associated with Statesboro because he crafted the words and music of the original “Statesboro Blues,” which he performed for a 1928 recording. He was born in Thomson, near Augusta, and died in Milledgeville.
But “in his early years, McTell learned to play guitar right around here from his mother, relatives and neighbors in Statesboro, Georgia, where his family had moved and he spent his teenage years,” Mikell said, in remarks for the dedication.
“Blind Willie always said that he considered Statesboro to be his true home,” Mikell said.
About 100 people gathered in front of the visitors center for the Aug. 31 event. Mayor Jonathan McCollar spoke of Statesboro having “a deep, deep, rich history when it comes to music.” Bulloch County commissioners Chairman Roy Thompson noted that he and his wife, Deborah Thompson, had visited the site three weeks earlier and sat down beside the statue to play “a mini concert,” he with a banjo and she with a fiddle, and posted a picture on Facebook.
Pladd Dott Music owner Chris Mitchell proclaimed “lightning struck Statesboro three times” with McTell’s original “Statesboro Blues,” a second version recorded in1968 by blues artist Taj Mahal, who added a boogie-woogie element, and the cover recorded by the Allman Brothers Band in 1971.
Mitchell then played acoustic guitar and sang the Taj Mahal version to conclude the 10-minute ceremony.
A walk of stars
The bench and sculpture, within a block of Statesboro’s established Willie McTell Trail, offer “a great photo op” and another reason for people to stop, said Statesboro Convention and Visitors Bureau executive director Becky Davis.
She now heads the Statesboro Stars project committee, planning to make the sculpture the start of a walking tour with elements recognizing Statesboro people who have made lasting impressions. Engraved stars in walkways, plaques and lamppost banners are possibilities discussed, along with additional sculpture.
“If we could incorporate future statues into that project, it would add public art but also accomplish our goal of honoring Statesboro’s historical, cultural past,” Mikell said.
For the dedication ceremony, this story relies on video shot by Herald business columnist DeWayne Grice.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.