Portrait of a President

  • April 28, 2021 08:01

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Statue of Jimmy Carter by Frederick Hart. Atlanta, Georgia.

The Scientist

On December 12, 1952, disaster struck Chalk River Laboratories in Canada. A problem with the experimental NRX reactor caused a partial meltdown. The reactor had been seriously damaged by a hydrogen explosion, and thousands upon thousands of gallons of radioactive water were flooding into the reactor building's basement. A major nuclear disaster loomed, and the only chance of stopping it depended on a team of trained specialists descending into the flooded basement, and shutting down the reactor. To assist the Canadians in this mission, the U.S. Navy dispatched a young officer and nuclear scientist named Jimmy Carter. 

Artist Frederick Hart sculpting Jimmy Carter. Atlanta, Georgia. 1993.

Shutting down the reactor required that each team member don protective gear, and be lowered down into the basement individually, for a few minutes at a time, to limit their exposure to radioactivity, while they disassembled the damaged reactor. Though it was a long and painstaking process, it ended in success. Thanks to Carter and his team, the reactor was safely shut down, and a major crisis was averted. 

Many years later, Carter said that this experience at Chalk River Laboratories shaped his views on the risks of atomic energy, and made all too real the terrifying costs of nuclear war. 

The Farmer

After he left the Navy, Jimmy Carter went back to Georgia, and struggled to revive the family farm. However, the transition from Navy scientist to peanut farmer was far from easy. The Carters’ first harvest failed due to drought. To keep the farm afloat, the Carters were compelled to open several lines of credit. While Jimmy took classes, and read up on agriculture, his wife Rosalynn learned accounting, in order to better manage the books. 

At first, they were nearly overwhelmed by debt. For a year, Jimmy, Rosalynn, and their three sons lived in public housing in Plains, Georgia. In fact, Carter is the only U.S. president to have lived in subsidized housing before he took office. 

Artist Frederick Hart and Carter family unveiling the Statue of Jimmy Carter. Atlanta, Georgia. 1994.

Though they barely broke even the first year, by 1959 the Carter farm had become prosperous. As a result, Jimmy Carter was asked to serve on local boards for civic organizations, hospitals, and libraries, as he became more and more involved in the community. 

Advocating for Civil Rights

Like my father, who was arrested for participating in a civil rights demonstration in 1961, Carter spoke out loudly in favor of school integration. In his capacity as a community leader, as a school board member, as a prominent member of the local Baptist Church, and even as a peanut farmer, he made it known that he was in favor of racial integration; in fact, at one point, the local “White Citizens' Council” boycotted his peanut warehouse because he refused to join them. 

In 1962, a state senate seat opened up, and Carter ran for it. Revealing a talent for politics, Rosalynn helped lead the campaign to victory. By the time Carter took office, the Civil Rights Movement was well underway, and he and his family had become staunch John F. Kennedy supporters.

In 1966, Carter planned to run for United States Congress, but when an outspoken segregationist announced his candidacy for governor of Georgia, Carter decided to challenge him instead. In Georgia, the Civil Rights Movement was facing a conservative backlash, and liberal Democrats like Carter were determined to push back. Although he campaigned hard, he finished third. The winner was a right-wing racist, who bragged about refusing to allow African Americans inside a restaurant he owned, and who distributed ax handles to white patrons, as an explicit endorsement of violent racial segregation. 

Carter was bitterly disappointed. Also, the disastrous campaign had left him saddled with debt. He might have thrown in the towel right then and there, and given up politics altogether. Instead, he doubled down. He was determined topple the segregationists. Almost immediately, he began to position himself for the next gubernatorial election, and throughout the late 1960s, Carter campaigned tirelessly up and down the state. His hard work paid off, and in 1971, Carter was sworn in as the governor of Georgia. In his inaugural speech, he declared, “The time of racial discrimination is over.” Later, while Carter was serving as governor, he saw to it that a portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr., was hung up in the Georgia State Capitol. 

An Agenda for Peace

Carter’s early political career had taken shape within the struggle for civil rights, but by the early 1970s, the national conversation was dominated by the Vietnam War. Many people, especially young people, reacted with horror as that war escalated into an even larger conflict, which threatened to consume all of Southeast Asia, while the corruption and lawlessness of the Nixon Administration spiraled out of control. 

By coincidence, it was on December 12, 1974—the same date, twenty-two years beforehand, when the partial meltdown had occurred at Chalk River Laboratories—that Carter announced his candidacy for President of the United States. 

More than any presidential candidate before him, Carter centered an agenda for peace. “The biggest waste and danger of all is the unnecessary proliferation of atomic weapons throughout the world,” he said. “Our ultimate goal should be the elimination of nuclear weapon capability among all nations.” 

Also, more than any presidential candidate before him, Carter centered an agenda for the environment. It was extraordinary to hear a presidential candidate speak on behalf of “those of us who simply have to breathe the air, love beauty, and would like to fish or swim in pure water.” Candidate Carter offered “a firm commitment to pure air, clean water and unspoiled land.”

1976 Democratic Primary

The 1976 the contest for the Democratic Party presidential nomination was in effect America’s first experiment with a new electoral system. It unfolded over the course of a record number of state primaries and caucuses, a process which was intended to be more formal, transparent, and open than any previous candidate selection process.  

Against his better-known rivals, Carter was thought to have little chance. Almost certainly, under the old, behind-closed-doors, boss-dominated system, he would never have picked up the nomination, but after the pardon Nixon received, and with the memory of the Vietnam War still fresh in their minds, many voters were reacting to a political culture in catastrophic decline, and they saw Carter as an outsider, distant from the Washington establishment, who promised real change. The increased number of primaries gave Carter the chance to take his message directly to the people, and none of the other candidates, even those with the backing of more influential party bigwigs, were able to connect with them in the same way that Carter was.

When Carter finished second in the Iowa caucuses, the political experts were startled. When he won the New Hampshire primary, they were stunned. By the time he defeated former Alabama Governor George Wallace in the North Carolina primary, he had eliminated almost all of his main rivals.

A New Direction

In July, many of America’s best-known liberal and leftist politicians and activists gathered for the Democratic National Convention at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. On the first day of the convention, Barbara Jordan delivered the keynote address. A leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Jordan was the first African American elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction, and she became the first African-American woman to deliver a keynote address at a Democratic National Convention.

Jordan’s speech was received with rapturous applause. She was followed by John Glenn, the aviator and astronaut. Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King, Jr., attended the second day of the convention. Legendary labor leader Cesar Chavez spoke on the third day.

In his speech accepting the Democratic Party’s nomination, Carter declared, “It is time for universal voter registration. It is time for a nationwide comprehensive health program for all our people. It is time to guarantee an end to discrimination because of race or sex.”

The mood was electric. Almost exactly two hundred years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the country’s future seemed to hang in the balance. All anyone could agree on was that it was time for a new direction. For a moment, it appeared as if change was not only possible, it was inevitable, and a dramatic expansion of democracy was about to take place, opening up a brand new chapter in American history. 

The Fundraiser

Swept up in this burst of enthusiasm for the dark horse candidate, my father volunteered for the Carter campaign. At the time, my father, the sculptor, Frederick Hart, had a studio in Georgetown, in Washington, D.C. Down by the railroad tracks, on the far side of the C&O canal, underneath the Whitehurst Freeway, his studio occupied an old lumberyard warehouse. It was a cavernous space, with factory windows, and a huge metal door. A gas heater dangled from an unfinished ceiling high above. In one part of the warehouse, which they used for storage, a furniture company had piled up wooden tables and chairs. The rest of the warehouse space my father split with his sculpting partner, and an architect.

He offered to hold a fundraiser for the Carter campaign at the studio. So in early 1976 he and his partner cleared away the plaster casts, and piles of clay, to pack in as many of their friends and Carter supporters as they could. The warehouse was roomy, and they had plenty of space. Also: plenty of tables and chairs. 

To give this rough environment a more festive feel, he and his partner blew up red, white, and blue balloons. Before they let them float up to the ceiling, they attached ribbons, and on the end of each was hung a little bag of peanuts, in honor of Carter the peanut-farmer. 

Working for World Peace 

After Carter won the general election, and began his term as president, he made good on his commitment to be an advocate for world peace by halting the development of the neutron bomb. Previous presidents had tried and failed to reach an agreement with the Soviet Union on a second round of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), which set upper limits on the number of nuclear weapons possessed by the Untied States and the Soviet Union, but Carter hoped to do even more. He wanted to reach an agreement with the Soviet Union to reduce, rather than merely set upper limits on, the nuclear arsenals of both countries. The agreement he reached with Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev became known as SALT II.

While working to reduce the overhanging threat of nuclear war, Carter also worked to achieve world peace by acting as a mediator in the long-running conflict ripping apart the Middle East. In 1978, he hosted Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin for twelve days of secret meetings at a country retreat in Maryland, which was known as Camp David. In the agreements which emerged from those meetings, the Camp David Accords, Egypt agreed to recognize the state of Israel, while Israel agreed to Palestinian self-government. Though they failed, in the end, to bring the resolution many were hoping for, the Camp David Accords were hailed as a diplomatic breakthrough, and a great effort for peace in the Middle East.

The Legacy

Carter has also been credited for using his time in office to take significant steps to protect the environment. He battled the strip mining lobby, and signed into law the bill that established Superfund, a federal program designed to clean up industrial sites contaminated with hazardous substances. Other laws addressed energy conservation and pesticides. Carter withdrew millions of acres of public domain land in Alaska from commercial use by designating the land as conservation area, and in 1980, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act doubled the amount of public land set aside for national parks and wildlife refuges.

On the other hand, much was left undone. Universal voter registration never materialized, nor did the “nationwide comprehensive health program.” Carter’s administration made great strides, but fell far short of overcoming systematic discrimination on the basis of race or sex. His administration was also troubled by the oil crisis. In the end, it was his infamous intervention on behalf of the Shah of Iran which precipitated the final crisis of his presidency. 

“In remembering Carter’s presidency, people tend to be a bit harsh,” my father said, years later. At the time, he did not believe Carter had not been properly recognized for his work on behalf of world peace; however, “there were two or three circumstances that undid him: the hostage crisis and the oil crisis. The aborted rescue attempt was the nail in the coffin.” 

Whatever one thinks of his administration, Carter has undoubtedly enjoyed more and more respect and admiration for his work over the years since he left office. In 1982, Carter founded the Carter Center, a non-profit organization, for the purpose of advancing human rights. Since then, the Carter Center has undertaken election monitoring missions, interventions on behalf of victims of human rights, as well as disease eradication efforts. 

In 1984, the Carter family began working with Habitat for Humanity. Later on the same year, the Carters led a Habitat for Humanity work group to New York, serving nineteen families in need of safe, affordable housing. That was the inaugural Carter Work Project, which is now a weeklong event which takes place in a different location each year.

A Tribute to Carter

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, The Carter Tribute Commission began raising money to fund a statue of Jimmy Carter. The sculptor they selected for the job was my father, who began work on the sculpture in his new studio in Hume, Virginia. 

Whenever my father worked on a portrait of a person, he was always eager to spend as much time with that person as he could. He wanted to get to know the person, so that he could represent his or her most distinctive expressions, and convey something of his or her personality. Unfortunately, Carter was not an ideal model. For one thing, he was much too busy. 

Carter had been straightforward with my father: He had no time to spare on a trip up to Virginia. So my father would have to come to him. When he arrived in Atlanta, my father went directly to the Carter Center. There, the former President of the United States greeted my father warmly—and yet, he seemed distracted. He was unwilling to sit still. 

Carter was obviously very busy. My father attempted to be deferential, despite frequent interruptions. Agitated and distracted—this was not how my father wanted the subject of this portrait to appear. Also, clearly, there was something in particular bothering Carter. A humble man, he seemed more annoyed than proud about being immortalized in the form of a bronze monument. 

My father thought of a story to get his attention, maybe make him laugh, and put him at ease. They chatted about the flight. My father told him about how he had bought a ticket for himself, and one for the seat next to him. While still at his studio, he carefully removed the clay head from the statue, then put it in a box, and brought it with him to the airport. He boarded the plane with the detached clay head, and once he had taken his seat, he carefully set it down inside the box on the seat beside him. A flight attendant happened to ask, “What’s in the box, sir?” My father answered, as casually as he could, “Well, ma’am, it’s just Jimmy Carter’s head.”

Nervously, my father chuckled. Then Carter flashed his famous grin, and laughed, too. 

My father chatted with Carter a bit more. They shared a great love of fishing and the outdoors. As they got to be more at ease, Carter’s features relaxed into a more natural expression. Recognizing at once the confident and thoughtful pose my father felt he needed to capture, he picked up his tools and went to work. 

Scientist, Farmer, Humanitarian, Environmentalist, and Statesman

The sculpture was cast in bronze, and placed on the grounds of the Georgia State Capitol, so that it looks out over the city, from the corner of Washington Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive, right underneath the windows of the governor’s office. At the unveiling on June 7, 1994, my father said, “I am greatly honored to have been selected to sculpt President Carter, a man who served our country in so many ways: from the Camp David Accords and SALT II treaty, that were among the achievements of his presidency, to the myriad projects he has since undertaken on behalf of human and environmental needs.”

“I have a lot of feeling about Atlanta,” he told a reporter afterward, “and I have a lot of feeling about Washington, and I like Jimmy Carter very much, and so I was really pleased to do this.” 

In addition to the brief time he spent with Carter in Atlanta, my father explained he sought to create a likeness by working from a life mask, photographs, and video. “I got the gesture from watching videos of him teaching. He is normally sort of a shy, crisp person when he speaks, but when he gets into teaching, he gets very animated.”

“He’s just so involved with the people he’s speaking to, and takes such delight in the truth and the goodness and the justness of what he’s saying. This gave me the idea for the gesture I use in the statue. It’s almost conversational. He’s reaching out with both hands as if to make contact with you, as a person. That sense of reaching out best defines him, as a personality, and as a statesman.” 

Depth and Generosity

“President Carter is one of the most consistently deep politicians we've ever had,” my father said, “and I wanted to convey his depth and generosity, so he doesn't have the big Jimmy Carter grin, which obliterates his depth. Instead, he has a smile, but it’s a mild smile.”

“The key thing that I tried to do was evoke his generosity. What I did was create a standing figure, about the same scale as the three soldiers at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, larger than life-size, but giving the impression of life-size in the particular setting. He’s dressed informally, in a work shirt with his sleeves rolled up. 

“A suit is the dullest thing in the world from a sculptor’s viewpoint. And he’s not a suit person. There’s nothing he loves more than putting on some work clothes. His inner nature is informal and relaxed and open. 

“I did one little touch which he liked a lot which has to do with the fact that he’s a great environmentalist, and he loves to fish. He’s a great fly fisherman, so I gave him a belt buckle with a trout on it… He was so pleased with that, he had me make one for him, and one for Rosalynn, for them to actually wear.”

Finally, my father wondered, “Why hasn’t Jimmy Carter received a Nobel Peace Prize? If anybody deserves it, he does. I mean, Henry Kissinger… give me a break.” 

Portrait of a President

The statue was the eighth monument to be erected on the grounds of the Georgia State Capitol. Initially, there had been concerns that the grounds would be too "crowded" to accommodate the sculpture, and so a landscaping company created a special area around Carter’s statue, with a small garden, as a way of setting it apart from the other statuary. A reporter theorized in 1994 that Carter’s would be the last life-size monument to grace the grounds of the Georgia State Capitol. He was wrong. 

Carter finally won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. He was awarded the prize "for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development." Fifteen years later, a statue of fellow Georgian and fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. joined the statue of Carter on the grounds of the Georgia State Capitol. Dr. King’s statue was unveiled on the east side of the building.

I am so proud of the work my father created to honor Jimmy Carter, and immensely grateful for the fact that it gave me an opportunity to meet him—very briefly—as an awkward teenager, in June 1994. 



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Sculpting from Life

Honoring the skill and imagination of the most impactful artists, and the inspirational works which helped determine the shape of contemporary art, with a special emphasis on figurative sculpture, and the fine art of Frederick Hart.

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