MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) - The result of about 10 years of work was presented to the public July 23.
That’s when sculptor Jamie Lester’s statue of the late actor and Morgantown native Don Knotts was unveiled along High Street in front of the Metropolitan Theatre in Morgantown.
Knotts (July 21, 1924-Feb. 24, 2006) is best known as the actor who portrayed deputy Barney Fife on “The Andy Griffith Show” during the 1960s, a role in which he won five Emmy awards, but this is not a statue of the hilarious deputy.
It depicts the man, Don Knotts.
“We started that way back, right around the time that Don Knotts passed away,” said Lester, 42, an Oceana native and West Virginia University graduate.
Lester said it took “about eight years of fundraising to make it happen. We only achieved that fundraising goal about a year and a half ago. We created the sculpture from that point.”
Lester has other works on display in Morgantown, including legendary WVU basketball players Jerry West and Hot Rod Hundley and a bust of the late “Voice of the Mountaineers” Jack Fleming.
Knotts, Lester noted, “of all the subjects I’ve done, he’s probably the most worldwide famous and well-known. He’s a comedic genius. I really think his characters he created shaped American culture and influenced so many artists today.”
The statue depicts Knotts seated on a bench holding a script for his 1966 film, “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken,” and a hat, a prop from “The Andy Griffith Show.”
Knotts graduated from Morgantown High School. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II before attending WVU, where he earned a bachelor’s degree.
He starred in films including “The Incredible Mr. Limpet,” ”The Ghost and Mr. Chicken,” ”The Shakiest Gun in the West” and “How to Frame a Figg.” He also held a recurring role on the TV show “Three’s Company.” These are among numerous other TV and movie appearances.
“The Andy Griffith Show,” well more than 50 years since its original airing, remains available in reruns, but younger people may not realize the importance of the role played by Knotts.
“The unfortunate thing, a lot of people, young people, don’t know who he is,” Lester said. “They didn’t grow up with the show. They don’t know who Don Knotts is, so it’s good to have the statue to help people remember this icon and all the amazing things he did.”
Knotts continues to have fans around the world, as the aftermath of the statue unveiling revealed.
“We saw the impact that came our way through our website, Facebook and social media,” Lester said. “All of the Don Knotts posts just went worldwide in a way that none of our other projects have.
“Personally, business-wise this is a real boost just to do that project. It’s a great honor. I took it very seriously. It’s a privilege to be able to do that sculpture.”
Shortly after Knotts’ death, a fan in Mount Airy, North Carolina, started raising funds for a Barney Fife statue. The Knotts family, however, did not approve of the project, Lester noted.
“When we decided we wanted to do one for Morgantown, we contacted the family and talked to them about what they would like to see,” Lester said. “It was really important to them that we do a seated figure.
“They didn’t want him standing up like he was a big hero. They wanted him to be kind of on the level as a regular person, because he was a humble, quiet person. … They also wanted it to be the man, the actor, the comedian, the artist, as opposed to some character that he created. They wanted him to be immortalized as himself, not a character, which I agreed with.”
Karen Knotts, Don Knotts’ daughter, came to Morgantown for the unveiling.
She did a “little slideshow of her dad’s career,” Lester said. “She kind of told stories that you never heard before or new twists on stories that you have heard before. Little secrets that no one knew about Don Knotts and Andy Griffith and the whole family of people who worked on that show.”
Lester said he has been making art “all my life, since I was about 4 years old, when I started making drawings and making paintings.”
His mother, Deborah Lister, who currently lives in Shady Spring, was a water-color artist and oil painter.
“She’d always have something around the house when I was a little kid,” Lester said. “I grew up making drawings and paintings. I came to WVU to do painting. I took a pottery class my sophomore year. I really fell in love with that, the nature of clay, and never looked back. From that point on I always focused on sculpture.”
Lester, who came to WVU in 1992, earned his bachelor’s in fine arts degree in 1997 and started the business Lester Sculpture that same year. He ran it for 15 years, focusing mostly on small projects.
In 2007, he did the Jerry West statue that is outside the WVU Coliseum. His Jack Fleming bust is in the WVU Alumni Center.
In 2012, Lester partnered with friend and entrepreneur Jeff Edwards to create Vandalia Bronze.
“Ever since then it’s just been nonstop large-scale sculptures,” he said. “I actually stopped doing small reliefs, because it was just too much.”
The West, Hundley and Fleming projects “were really fun pieces to work on,” Lester said.
West, still active as an executive with the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, is the only one still alive. Fleming passed away in 2001 and Hundley in 2015.
“They’re very powerful subjects who have powerful personalities that I tried to capture in clay. My strongest suit is portraiture. Every piece I try to inject, try to capture the spirit of these people. Most of the time I don’t get to meet them. I didn’t meet Jerry before I made his piece.
“I did meet Hot Rod, but he was probably a shadow of his former self, I’d say, because of Alzheimer’s, although he still had the wild side. I met Jack Fleming once when I first came to school here, but didn’t really get to know him. His brother John really helped me understand who he was.
“Mostly it’s just looking into the photographs and the eyes of that person and capturing what it is. We all have two eyes, a nose and a mouth, pretty much in the same place. What is it that distinguishes us and makes us unique? It’s very subtle things for each person, bone structure, their ethnic heritage, the expression they make their entire lives, shape of their face.”
When possible, Lester will read a book about the subject of a sculpture.
“With Don Knotts, I watched episodes of ‘The Andy Griffith Show,’” he said. “I watched the way he moved and his facial features - the way his face wrinkled from different angles when he made certain expressions and tried to capture that accurately.”
The ultimate objective is to depict the total person - more than the physical look - and bring tears of emotion, not sadness.
“My goal is to kind of capture a little bit of that spirit of life in their material,” Lester explained. “I think you can. A few times I’ve been able to get the shape of the clay and the expression of the eyes and mouth and the whole face really so that people who knew that person and loved them see it and channel that.
“My goal is to make someone cry when we unveil the piece. I want someone to cry when they see it.”
It happened at the Boy Scout camp in Southern West Virginia this summer.
“I don’t want to make anybody cry in pain, but the touching, the emotional connection that causes someone to tear up at that moment is what I’m after,” he added. “I want to invoke an emotional response.”
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