MILO — Thanks to COVID-19, sculptor Dexter Benedict was able to enjoy the company of Harry S. Truman this past spring and summer.
Benedict, 75, was commissioned to create a sculpture of the 33rd president of the United States as part of a $30 million renovation of the Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence, Mo. Benedict and his wife, Faith, will be driving the sculpture out to Missouri in several weeks for an Aug. 20 installation but before doing so are holding an open house from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday for interested local residents to take a peek.
The piece was originally supposed to be finished and transported in early May, but COVID delayed that timeline. Benedict is grateful for the extra time and joked that working on it in his studio kept him safe from the virus.
“I’ve enjoyed living with it,” he said Monday, as he continued to put the finishing touches on the 6-foot, 9-inch tall cast bronze statue that weighs an estimated 600 pounds.
Those last touches include applying the patina to preserve the bronze finish and wax to keep the sculpture from oxidizing and turning green or streaked in the outdoors. Benedict employs the lost wax process in his pieces, in which a bronze sculpture is created from a negative of an original model. Benedict starts with a clay model and does all the work along the way until the bronze sculpture is created.
Truman was an avid walker during his lifetime and a new walking trail has been added to the library/museum grounds. Benedict’s creation will be positioned at the trail’s start and museum’s entrance — a prominent spot for what he says is likely his most prestigious commission.
The retired Keuka College art professor has done other sculptures of well known and more obscure subjects, including Harriet Tubman and William Seward for the Schenectady Public Library; John Lincklaen for Lakeland Park in Cazenovia; and Justice Robert H. Jackson for the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. and the federal courthouse in Buffalo. Jackson, incidentally, was appointed by Truman to serve as chief prosecutor for the United States in the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals.
“I feel honored to have the opportunity to do this work and I hope it’s well received,” Benedict said.
During the early stages of his research, he came across a YouTube video of President Truman — flanked by his Secret Service detail — out on one of his daily constitutions. As Truman came to an intersection and stopped, he lifted and tipped his hat to a passerby. Benedict seized on that image.
“I thought that would be a neat way to have him presented, smiling and greeting people who come to the library,” Benedict said. “You like to create some sense of animation and expression that has meaning beyond just another figure.”
Benedict visited the Truman library and museum several years ago and said he was very impressed by it. The current renovations started a year ago but were five years in the planning, according to director Kurt Graham. The work included complete plumbing and electrical renovations and a modest expansion; the hope is that the building will reopen this fall.
Graham called Benedict’s sculpture a “signature piece” that will welcome visitors to the library/museum and probably end up in their photos and on their social media pages.
“It’s very welcoming, very warm,” he said. “It really captures the personality of Truman.”
Benedict said over the years he has been fortunate that those who have commissioned his pieces have pretty much given him creative license — allowing him to be the interpreter of his subject. But he’s also keen on creating a sculpture that everyone is happy with and welcomes collaboration. His philosophy is “Let’s work together to make this right.”
The back-and-forth process of seeking feedback with museum staff yielded a more smiling Truman, rather than the contemplative one Benedict began with. Benedict works with a huge picture board of as many different images of his subject as he can find. The images gave him not only a sense of Truman’s different facial expressions, but also a sense of the era in which he lived.
Graham appreciated that collaboration. The museum staff, familiar with the Jackson bust and Benedict’s other work, sought Benedict out for the Truman sculpture. Graham describes Benedict as down to earth, willing to make changes and able to see things from others’ perspectives.
“He’s just a true artist in the very best sense of the word,” he said.
Throughout the project, Benedict learned much about the man who assumed the presidency in 1945 upon the sudden death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He viewed online lectures through the presidential library, consulted David McCullough’s 1992 biography of Truman and had plenty of conversations with friend (and retired Seedway CEO) Don Wertman, who has an avid interest in history and Truman especially.
“Once you start working on something then your ear is attuned to anything Truman,” Benedict said, adding it’s important for a sculptor to have some rapport with his subject. “This is a heroic individual and you want to make that connection.”