Akron artist Woodrow Nash firmly believes each of his sculptures has a unique personality.

And his latest work — abolitionist John Brown — is certainly living up to his rebellious likeness.

The plan was simple enough: Create a bust of Brown in time to mark the 219th birthday of one of Akron's most famous citizens, for a celebration on Thursday that will coincide with the unveiling of renovations and new exhibits inside his home on so-called Mutton Hill.

But John Brown had other ideas.

Artist Woodrow Nash said last weekend he walked into his Copley Road studio — not far from the anti-slavery activist's home — to discover the unthinkable.

Four clay torsos were lined up on his workbench.

Four? There were supposed to be five.

The busts in progress depict the four African American men who joined the ill-fated 1859 raid on a federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, and the leader of the rebellion, Brown himself.

But Brown was missing his head.

Nash surmises it was the weight of his very distinctive, very large beard that caused the clay model to become beheaded.

"You don't want to know what I said," he chuckled at the thought of John Brown's head lying a-mouldering on the floor.

But this is all part of the artistic process. The road from concept to finished work is not something to be rushed, and Nash admits perhaps he was perhaps a bit too hasty in his first attempt.

Museum attraction

The idea to create a sculpture for the Summit County Historical Society started months ago.

As a board member of the society, Nash and others thought it would be nice to have something other than a photograph for visitors to see when they visit the home. So he offered to create a bigger-than-life bust.

Nash said one soon became five, as it seemed right to also remember those African Americans who volunteered to join Brown on what was certainly going to be a suicide mission to try to spark the anti-slavery movement.

But as history tells us, it didn't unfold as Brown had planned. Federal troops quelled the raid, and Brown was captured and eventually executed.

Nash said with all his projects — and his studio is filled with numerous ones underway — he will first study up on his subject and his or her lifestyle, then if he's lucky he will carefully examine photographs.

So far he has found a photograph of Dangerfield Newby, a former slave who was among the first to be killed in the raid, along with former slaves Lewis Leary and Osborn Anderson, who was able to escape. In the case of Brown, that long beard stood out in grainy black and white photographs.

Starting with powder, he adds water to form the clay that is hand-molded into the shape of the subject.

He begins by building the torso and head of the subjects, applying layers of clay over pliable Styrofoam that will eventually burn away in the kiln that takes up a corner of the studio.

This is when the piece not only takes shape, but develops a personality.

Nash readily admits his works never end up how he initially envisions them, down to the long hairs on subjects like Brown's chin.

"As you work, a dialogue starts between the artist and the piece," he explains. "The piece takes on a personality and a mind of its own."

And this is what he believes led to Brown losing its head.

Nash said it was as if Brown was saying, not so fast.

“This is a tedious process,” he said.

Unveiling in summer

Once the sculpting starts in earnest, it can take upward of a month to create large works like the ones for the John Brown House.

After the final details are carved in the clay, it is off to several days in the kiln that reaches an eventual temperature of 1800 degrees. Then he waits for it to cool off so the final surface material can be applied, ensuring the artwork will be around for generations to come.

It has been a long road for the Buchtel High School and University of Akron graduate.

He started his career in New York, crafting everything from commissioned paintings to jazz album covers and fashion art.

After artist gigs at Goodyear, American Greetings and out of state, he found his calling in sculpture and eventually returned to plant his roots in the city where he was born.

He now creates pieces big and small that are sold in galleries, commissions (including one of a well-known rapper) and pieces for museums.

Nash has made about 40 — more are in the works — life-size depictions of children who were slaves in the South for the historic Whitney Plantation museum and grounds in Louisiana.

He hopes to have the John Brown bust finished and installed sometime in late June, and the ones of the men who fought beside him installed every subsequent month or so.

This particular project holds a special place in his heart since it involves a historical figure who called Summit County home.

He fears there are kids who live not far from the historic home, and a nearby monument that lies hidden by trees and brush, who have no idea who John Brown was or the role he and the others played in sparking the Civil War and the end of slavery.

"I think this will be wonderful," he said.

 

Craig Webb can be reached at cwebb@thebeaconjournal.com.