On Sept. 17, 1859, a little over a year before he was elected the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln stood on the steps of the old Montgomery County Courthouse in Dayton and delivered an anti-slavery speech that helped pave his way to the White House. To commemorate the 157th anniversary of the historic speech, the Lincoln Society of Dayton commissioned Champaign County artist Mike Major to sculpt an 11-foot-tall bronze statue of the former president, which was unveiled during a ceremony in downtown Dayton on Sept. 17.
Permanently on display next to the old courthouse in Courthouse Square at the corner of Third and Main streets in downtown Dayton, Major’s latest artistic endeavor was created inside his downtown Urbana studio. While he was involved off and on for six years in the decade-long project led by the Lincoln Society of Dayton, the actual sculpting and foundry work for the monument took him about a year to complete, he said.
During the Sept. 17 unveiling ceremony, Major was one of several individuals to speak. He was joined on stage by former Ohio Gov. Bob Taft and renowned Lincoln historian Harold Holzer.
“I have completed numerous commissions for famous and not-so-famous people and institutions, but this Lincoln for Dayton tops them all,” Major said during his speech.
He went on to describe what it was like to handcraft a sculpture of one of the most influential Americans of all time: “Imagine holding in your hands pieces of clay. Imagine placing and sculpting the face, the hands, the complete figure of Abraham Lincoln. The sensation is one of seeing him coming back to life as the blocks of soft clay are warmed by your hands and pressed into place.
“You want to get every detail just right. Adjustments are made and at last there he is, standing 11 feet tall, and for a while you are alone with him in the studio, a private visit, just you with Lincoln,” he added.
Major said he is most proud of one aspect of the statue in particular – Lincoln’s stance.
“(The pose) shows strength, intelligence, control, and perhaps humility and attentiveness,” he said. “These were characteristics that I strove to include in the sculpture.”
Looking back on the ceremony and all the hard work and dedication that went into sculpting the larger-than-life Lincoln, Major said, he is proud to be associated with the monument that now stands proudly in the city where he was born and first studied art at the Dayton Art Institute.
“I consider Lincoln at the top of the list of great presidents,” he said. “In this current troubling presidential race, it has been soothing to focus on such a great leader from our past.
“Meeting former Ohio Gov. Bob Taft and author Harold Holzer and having them among the group of presenters at the celebration was very moving for me personally as well. Finally, having most all of my immediate family present was icing on the cake,” he added.
Joshua Keeran may be reached at 937-652-1331 (ext. 1774) or on Twitter @UDCKeeran.