- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 27, 2008

Diamond Head, outrigger canoes, Waikiki Beach — all are icons synonymous with the 50th state. Yet just a half-hour west of downtown Honolulu and not too far from another American icon, Pearl Harbor, in Ewa (Eva) Beach, one can find a bronzed, rippled, wide-shouldered, brawny and broad-chested figure, another American icon, cut from the Illinois prairie rather than the Banzai Pipeline of the North Shore — Abraham Lincoln.

Thanks to a dedicated educator, Lincoln has a special home in the Aloha State, a place that brings him garlands of leis every Feb. 12. “Lincoln the Frontiersman,” the work of prodigious American public sculptor Avard T. Fairbanks, has graced the entrance plaza to Ewa Elementary School since 1944 and is the school’s beloved mascot.

Posed as a larger-than-life (9-foot) rail-splitter, Lincoln has powerful, taut forearms, and his hands grip an ax, which rests across his flexed right thigh. His right foot, wearing a boot, rests on a fallen log, bearing part of his weight. With his feet spread apart and tension evident in his torso, he has his left leg and foot planted firmly as he prepares to fell not a nearby palm tree, but timber from Sangamon County, Ill.

Lincoln wears a V-necked undergarment, split down the middle and exposing part of his massive pectoral muscles beneath his open shirt. His sleeves are rolled up to the elbows. Unlike other statues in the genre of “Lincoln the Youth,” Mr. Fairbanks’ treatment of the subject’s face shows marked maturity.

Art historian F. Lauriston Bullard said, “The neck, rightly, is long; the face is strong; the whole effect is that of a strong personality.”

Another critic argued that “the listless, gawky, sleepy-eyed Lincoln is gone, and we have instead a Lincoln powerful, alert, aggressive, with eyes through which only Lincoln could visualize far ahead of time itself the great benefits to be enjoyed through a free and united nation. Standing before Fairbanks’ handiwork, one can sense the sweat of Lincoln’s labor. It is not hard to imagine, given the pose and attention to anatomical detail, that Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief, on an 1864 visit to the Army of the Potomac in Virginia, would entertain the troops by holding just such an axe, one armed and parallel from his body.”

Western horizons

To understand the genesis of this Lincoln, far removed from the American mainland, one needs to recall the tale of the school’s beloved teacher and principal Katherine McIntosh Burke, who bequeathed funds in her will to erect the statue.

Burke, like Lincoln, was a product of the prairie. Her family’s roots, like Lincoln’s, reached to Kentucky. Burke was born in the contested territory of Kansas 11 days before Lincoln first took the oath of office, and she was raised in Leavenworth. Being from the more progressive western part of the nation, she attended Kansas State Teacher’s College at Emporia and then moved on to the University of California, from which she graduated.

Always drawn to a frontier vision, Burke taught in tandem with the westward movement. Her teaching posts ranged from her home state of Kansas to Arizona, Nevada, California and Alaska. It was in Arizona and Nevada where she secured positions as school principal. When Hawaii was taken by the United States in 1898 during America’s love affair with imperialism, Burke jumped at the opportunity to expand her horizons farther westward and moved first to the island of Kauai and then to Oahu, where this schoolmarm-turned-principal ended her career in 1929 at Ewa Plantation School, then kind of a country day school.

All her life, Burke was dedicated to working with children who reflected the ethnic mix of America. Her admiration for Lincoln’s legacy of equal opportunity for all Americans inspired her work as an educator. She died in 1938 at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and along with her request to have a Lincoln statue erected, she asked to have her ashes returned to the Hawaiian Territory for burial.

A long career

The task of making Burke’s dream a reality fell to sculptor Avard Tennyson Fairbanks. More than 100 public monuments across the United States are the result of Mr. Fairbanks’ handiwork. Abraham Lincoln is the subject of 11 of them.

Born in Provo, Utah, in 1897, the sculptor lived a long life, dying just two months before his 90th birthday in 1987, and worked almost constantly until his death. His 75-year catalog is deep and wide, conveying a variety of themes. His subjects range from the Pony Express to George Washington to heroes from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which Mr. Fairbanks was a member.

Sculpture captured Mr. Fairbanks’ fancy when he was 12, and his academic career and training included working in his early teen years under the direction of noted sculptor James Earle Fraser at the Art Students League in New York. In 1913, he enrolled in the famed Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and exhibited some works at the Grand Salon.

After returning to the United States in 1917, he was awarded a bachelor of fine arts degree from Yale and a master of fine arts from the University of Washington. He next earned adoctorate in anatomy from the University of Michigan, where he also taught.

It was during his professorship there that he created “Lincoln the Frontiersman,”working in an old gymnasium on the Ann Arbor campus.

Other academic posts during his long career were held at the University of Oregon, University of Utah and the University of North Dakota. Mr. Fairbanks received numerous awards and was a fellow of the National Sculpture Society, a member of the Architectural League of New York and of the International Institute of Arts and Letters. The National Sculpture Society honored him with the coveted Herbert Adams Memorial Medal for “distinguished service to American sculpture.”

Other Lincolns

Mr. Fairbanks, like other Lincoln sculptors, employed Leonard Volk’s 1860 life mask of Lincoln for drawing inspiration as well as the physiognomy of Lincoln’s face. He pored over photographs of Lincoln, too, in creating all of his civic sculptures.

Unlike other sculptors from the great age of Lincoln monuments, 1870 to 1940, Mr. Fairbanks captured wide-ranging aspects of Lincoln’s life. Paired with “Lincoln the Frontiersman” is “The Resolute Lincoln” (1954) in New Salem, Ill.

The Greater Chicago area boasts two unusual Fairbanks interpretations of Lincoln. “The Chicago Lincoln” (1956), depicting Lincoln as a candidate for president, gave the sculptor what he called “a chance to portray Liberty.” In “Lincoln the Friendly Neighbor” (1959), Mr. Fairbanks lovingly guides a young boy and girl into their American future tied to Lincoln’s vision of democracy. On the pedestal, carved into the stone, are the words of Lincoln’s letter to his friend Joseph Gillespie: “The better part of one’s life consists of his friendships.”

Visitors to the Ford’s Theatre Museum can marvel at the four heroic marble busts called collectively “The Four Ages of Abraham Lincoln.” Created for the federal government for the Lincoln Sesquicentennial, Mr. Fairbanks’ commission was to capture Lincoln as youth, frontiersman, lawyer and president. Each plumbs the depth of Lincoln’s psyche germane to its particular time period.

Ax for inspiration

Shortly after Burke’s death, the trustees for her estate invited Mr. Fairbanks to submit a design for the Hawaii statue. In early 1941, after visiting the sculptor’s Ann Arbor studio and examining the model, the chairman of the trustees endorsed the project and recommended to the board that Mr. Fairbanks be awarded the commission.

Initially, Mr. Fairbanks considered a standard treatment of Lincoln as president, wearing his frock coat, but he abandoned the idea, considering the semitropical climate of Oahu.

“In considering the responsibility before me,” Mr. Fairbanks said in a 1941 radio broadcast, “of doing a work worthy of the trust placed in me, I thought of the hopes of the schoolteacher and her eager desire to inspire students. … Many times I thought of the things of Lincoln’s youth which stood out in my mind. He was strong, and he could work well. He worked with a purpose, and he cleared the fields and forests for new growth and developments. As he developed strong in body, he was also developing in strength of character and mind.”

Perhaps thinking of the labor that students must employ in completing their schoolwork, Mr. Fairbanks further remarked, “He had to cut his way through. … He was a frontiersman.”

Wistfully, the sculptor confided to the audience how his own personal struggles helped lead to his Hawaii Lincoln.

“I was called west to the funeral of my father,” he said. “While still at his farm home and in deep sorrow, for a bit of relaxation I took an ax and went into the field to clear away some old trees and stumps. As I worked, I thought of the Lincoln statue. Lincoln was a man of sorrows, and he was a man of hopes; and as a youth he worked with an ax. And it was there that the inspiration of Lincoln as a youthful frontiersman, with an ax in hand, came to me.”

In his studio, Mr. Fairbanks worked with typical precision. A 12-inch model in clay was created, followed by one of 30 inches, then a full-scale clay model of 9 feet, weighing a ton.

An apt symbol

Hawaii would have to wait, however. The bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II put the dedication on hold. The casting of the statue at the foundry may have been one of the last times in World War II that use of copper (bronze is a combination of tin and copper) was permitted. Though the casting was completed during the war, the finished statue could not be shipped from the mainland to Hawaii.

The crisis of the moment was not lost on anyone, particularly given the statue’s final destination, not far from the naval base at Pearl Harbor, on a pedestal made from multicolored rainbow granite.

Thomas Starr, writing in the June 1944 Lincoln Herald, reported: “The selection of the rainbow granite pedestal, made before the Pearl Harbor incident, now seems to have significant symbolism. The sign of the rainbow was given to Noah after the great flood as a promise from God that there should never again be a deluge of the world.”

Mr. Fairbanks, too, was keen on the connection, remarking, “The symbolism may therefore be appropriate in its being so near Pearl Harbor, and may we hope that never again will there be a deluge of the world by force of arms.”

Simple ceremony

Finally, on the 135th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, Feb. 12, 1944, under gorgeous Hawaiian skies, Burke’s dream was realized as students, their families and teachers assembled to witness the unveiling.

The ceremony was simple. Civil War music was played by the Royal Hawaiian Band, and Burke’s life was retold. The school choir sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” followed by a choral rendition of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Gov. Ingram M. Stainback declared: “We believe that Mrs. Burke has shown wisdom and understanding in presenting this school this statue of Abraham Lincoln as a young man and that she had the hope that this statue standing here before Ewa School, where the children of so many ancestries — Americans all — work and play and learn together, would serve to remind them of the miracle that character, courage and work can accomplish. We join with her in hoping and believing that Abraham Lincoln, the frontiersman, may inspire the children at this school with a love of country and a love for their fellow man without which true democracy cannot exist.”

The lyrics and strains of the song “America” lifted above the palm trees, sung by the audience. The band struck up the national anthem, and the ceremony closed with everyone singing the benediction of “Great God Our King.”

After the statue’s unveiling in 1944, the Hawaii Educational Review weighed in on the piece, gushing with praise: “In the lifted face of the young frontiersman, the artist seems to have put the vision of a prophet - a seer into the future, as if he could foretell the great task before him.”

An almost synergistic relationship between the statue and the school immediately developed, both primed to take on the future - Lincoln with an ax, a tool for building a nation, and students honing their sharp minds to help better the world.

The Hawaiian word for “Thank you,” is “Mahalo.” Today, students, faculty and community continue the tradition seeded by Burke and made real by Mr. Fairbanks and others who enthusiastically endorsed Burke’s wishes. So, Mahalo, Katherine Burke, Mahalo.

• James A. Percoco is the author of “Summers With Lincoln: Looking for the Man in the Monuments” (Fordham University Press).

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