Michael Donahue Aug 9, 2014
As thousands of fans pass through Meditation Garden at Graceland during Elvis Week’s Candlelight Vigil Friday and Saturday, many will notice the modernistic statue of Jesus overlooking the grave, his arms outstretched, as if to welcome them.
The arresting figure has stood in the garden for decades, but the story of how he came to be, and almost didn’t, or who made him isn’t widely known. It’s a story of love for Elvis, who died on Aug. 16, 1977, and Elvis’ love for the Bible. And at the center is an eccentric sculptor who couldn’t say ‘no.’
Memphis artist John McIntire, who sculpted the piece in the 1960s, still carves marble at age 79 in his crowded Midtown backyard, which is filled with his abstract work, yard sale purchases, street finds, plants and cats. A retired Memphis College of Art sculpture professor, McIntire’s work can be found in private collections and in the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. One of his public sculptures, “The Muse,” stands across the street from City Hall.
In 1965, he was commissioned to make a statue of Jesus as a Christmas present to Elvis from members of the Memphis Mafia, the entertainer’s entourage. McIntire never dreamed he would sculpt a statue for Elvis. And he never dreamed he’d have to make an almost life-size statue in less than three weeks.
Brushing mosquitoes away with his hand as he sat on a metal chair in his backyard, McIntire related the story of how he once was sculptor for the King.
He never met Elvis, McIntire said, but he saw him around town and, on occasion, at the old Memphian movie theater. “He was extremely good looking,” McIntire said. “I thought he was some kind of Greek god. He had that look.”
During that time, McIntire taught sculpture and 3-D design at Memphis Art Academy, forerunner to the Memphis College of Art, and he owned the Bitter Lemon coffeehouse on Poplar. He lived at 2166 Madison in a house referred to as “The Beatnik Inn,” he said.
“Poets, writers and all kinds of weird freaks — and me — lived there. The front room, that was my studio. I lived upstairs.”
A laid-back atmosphere prevailed at The Beatnick Inn. “One night I woke up in the middle of the night and it was (poets) Randall Lyon and Allen Ginsberg trying to get me to get up to go to the river to do mantras.”
Memphis Mafia members Jerry Schilling and Marty Lacker would show up after Elvis went to bed, and hang out. “They’d stay sometimes for hours and hours.”
On one visit, Schilling and Lacker told McIntire they wanted to commission a statue of Jesus to give to Elvis for Christmas. McIntire asked what they wanted it to look like. “Marty Lacker put his feet together and stood with his arms sticking out. He says, ‘Just like this. Straight up and down.’”
They needed it by Dec. 24. “I said, ‘It’s Dec. 6. It takes years. Do you know how long it took Michelangelo to do the statue of David and all his stuff? That’s almost impossible.’”
They said they’d pay him $500. “I said, ‘Five hundred dollars? That’s more than I get paid at the Art Academy.’ I said, ‘OK,’ like an idiot. Here I am teaching all day, then trying to work at night, and contending with all the people at the coffeehouse.”
Memphis Mafia members tried to match their Christmas present to whatever Elvis was into at the time, Schilling said in a phone interview from Los Angeles.
“The year before, Elvis was really into guns, and the first Christmas present I gave him was a gun. I took my whole bonus and bought the gun. The next year Elvis was reading Bibles. He’d gone from shooting ranges to more serious things about life and Bibles and whatever. He had just completed the Meditation Garden about a year before. He was really into meditating and quiet time, so we thought this would be appropriate for a Christmas gift. Something special, unique. Something made especially for him,” Schilling said.
McIntire sculpted the about 5-foot statue of Jesus in clay and then made a 14-piece plaster mold of it. He found two men who had formulated a resin, which they mixed with marble dust to make sink tops and commodes.
He asked the men if they could pour their resin into his mold, to make the statue. They said they’d try anything, so McIntire transported the mold to them in a pickup.
McIntire was shocked when he returned to get the statue. “They didn’t secure the mold. That stuff swells up. It expanded the mold and this stuff oozed out all over the place. I was just sick: ‘There goes everything down the tube.’”
“I hauled this mess back to my front room and laid it on the floor. This stuff was setting up slowly; it wasn’t real crystal hard yet. So, I took scrapers and knives and carved the thing out of that stuff.”
The Memphis Mafia showed up. “I’m still working. Here comes that big stretch-mobile, that big black Lincoln they had. All of them come marching in the house.”
They began to pick up the statue. “I said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not done.’ They said, ‘It’s Christmas Eve. Elvis has to see it now.’ So, I was running out the door trying to take pictures. They picked it up and carried it out on their shoulders.”
The statue was a success. “Elvis was very touched and pleased with it,” Schilling said. “It was not what he said, it was the look on his face that just said everything.”
George Klein, Elvis’ close friend, also believes Elvis appreciated the statue. “From what I understand, he (Elvis) really liked it,” Klein said. “Elvis was, very quietly, a very religious person.”
He thought McIntire should market copies of the statue. But, Klein said, “He never could get into it: ‘It’s not my schtick.’”
McIntire, who still owns the miniature model for the sculpture, copyrighted the statue and made a few miniature versions, but he never really did anything commercially with it. “I cast three or four bronze ones and gave them away,” he said.
Asked to comment on the statute, Elvis Presley Enterprises public relations director Kevin Kern said they have no “documentation on the statue as to who made it” in their archives.
Shortly after he made the statue, McIntire sculpted a bust of Elvis in clay. He borrowed some scrapbooks of old photos of the King when he was young. “He looked like a young cherub,” McIntire said.
Ten years later, McIntire redid the piece, making Elvis look older. He opened the mold of his new Elvis bust on a hot August afternoon. “I had the radio on. It said, ‘Elvis Presley just found dead.’'
source: The Commercial Appeal