The John H. Johnson sculpture at Delta Heritage Trail State Park
John H. Johnson was the founder of the Johnson Publishing Company, which became the largest African American owned publishing company in the world with influential publications such as Ebony and Jet magazines. He was born in Arkansas City in 1918 and John H. Johnson Day, which was enacted by legislation during the 92nd Arkansas General Assembly, is celebrated every year on Nov. 1.
Arkansas artist Susan Holley Williams, who was born and raised in Dumas and currently lives in Little Rock and Chicago, was commissioned by Arkansas State Parks and the Walton Family Foundation to create the larger-than-life bronze sculpture of Johnson.
“His small-town roots are very important to me,” said Williams. “He passed away in 2005. Many young people don’t know who he is. I’m interested in making sure his legacy is known and lives on. This bigger-than-life sculpture is substantial and significant in creating an awareness of his existence.”
Williams was introduced to clay and sculpture in high school via an art teacher that saw and encouraged her talent early on. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree in housing and interior design from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and is also an interior designer. She worked on design projects for clients that have included former President Bill Clinton. She also taught art for the Little Rock School District and currently works in a home studio creating sculptures for outlets that include galleries, museums and private collectors.
The John H. Johnson Commemorative Plaza is at the southern terminus of the Delta Heritage Trail at Delta Heritage Trail State Park. The trail, which is on a former rail line under the national Rail to Trails program, is currently under development. Over 40 miles are open for hiking and cycling and when complete the trail will be over 80 miles.
The trail starts in Phillips County where Williams’ husband was born and ends in Desha County where she and Mr. Johnson were born.
“The Delta Heritage Trail is such a long trail, going through a lot of small counties and cities,” said Williams. “I think of all the cities, Arkansas City is probably the smallest. I want visitors to end this trail with something of great beauty and something that is educational for folks that are on that trail. John Johnson pretty much lived as an adult in Chicago so Arkansas City hasn’t had an opportunity to boast about their hometown hero. I’d like that to be obvious at the end of the trail. In my opinion, the best was saved for last. This placement was so appropriate.”
The sculpture stands out for Williams in many ways. “This one is a historical sculpture and it is the largest one I’ve ever created,” she said. “For African American sculptures, most of the ones I am aware of are not because of their business mind. I’ve seen athletes, I’ve seen politicians, religious leaders, but it is rare to find an African American man celebrated because of his business acumen.”
Williams said Johnson brought an awareness to people in general about the daily life of African Americans. “I grew up in Dumas where the population never reached 5,000,” she said. “We just didn’t know about those kinds of things until we started receiving the Ebony and Jet magazines. So he brought an awareness to us.”
As an artist, Williams has worked in many different art forms. Bronze work stands out for her. “I’ve used a lot of mediums before and taught art before as well so I am familiar with a lot of mediums,” she said. “In my mind there are pros and cons of all. In bronze you have to be dedicated because it is a lot of hard work. But I think in the end it is something you can leave a legacy with for thousands of years. You can bury a piece of bronze and come back 2,000 years later and it is still there. So the permanence of the bronze is what excites me. Clay is soft and malleable and a smooth surface you can easily work with. But when it turns into bronze it is permanent and kind of takes on a whole new shape. So that excites me.”
There are many steps that go into creating a sculpture and getting it from clay to bronze. Williams uses a long process called the lost wax method. “Most people think that after the studio work is done, you’re finished,” she said. “In bronze work, there are so many layers and processes that usually require months, sometimes more than a year to complete. It’s definitely not an overnight thing.”
When Williams first started the sculpture, there were few foundries that would do enlargements. “More and more you find that they do enlargements,” she said. “What I create first is a maquette, which is a smaller version of the sculpture that is going to be done. Usually you would do a half life size or a third life size, and enlarge it with a 3D printer. A computer carves the enlarged copy out of styrofoam. Since this enlargement process was new for me, I assumed that the sculpture would be ready minus a thin layer of clay. I soon found out that I pretty much had to recreate all of the surface details, the whole face, hands, veins, fingernails, folds in suit, details and textures. This was more like starting all over again with a styrofoam structure as a guideline.”
Williams said she probably created around 10-12 heads for the Johnson piece. And even after she got the sculpture enlarged she did two new ones. “You have to be willing to start all over again, it doesn’t matter what point you are at,” she said. “I found myself doing a lot of that.”
Her art pieces also evolve.
“I can’t just say it is going to have the left hand in the pocket, the head is going to be turned to the right,” she said. “I have to get a feel for the emotion in the piece when I am working with it. And so it changes and it evolves.”
The Johnson piece was her first time to make a sculpture from someone who had already passed. “I’ve done commissions of people, portraits of when they are living and you are looking at them you know what the profile looks like,” she said. “You know what pictures you need to take from under the chin above the head and all that. With him, I had little more than semi straight on photographs and candid shots at all different ages. So he evolved the whole time.”
Williams had a specific vision for the Johnson piece. “I knew that he grew up in horrific conditions, early 1900s working on the levee as a boy around 10 years old,” she said. “What I was trying to portray with him was his visit back home. Expressing and sharing his accomplishments with his hometown folks in spite of growing up in such a small town. You can see an accepting smile on his face when he has an epiphany about why he is who we celebrate today. It wasn’t in spite of growing up in Arkansas City, but because he grew up in Arkansas City.”
For more details on Delta Heritage Trail State Park visit arkansasstateparks.com/parks/delta-heritage-trail-state-park.