Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Sculptor uses knowledge of artistic, medical anatomy to create Shiloh monument

Early model for Shiloh project. (Courtesy of Kim Sessums)

To capture a person's essence, Mississippi artist Kim Sessums wants to know as much as he can about the subject’s circumstances, background and outlook.

His works of figurative sculpture also strive to be anatomically accurate. Clay is shaped through écorché, the practice of sculpture with exposed muscle structure.

There are no artistic exaggerations, such as is the case with the subjects’ hands and feet in Rodin’s “The Burghers of Calais.”

“It feels real because it has to be real,” Sessums says of his finished products, which include bronze busts of Andrew Wyeth, Eudora Welty, Sonny Montgomery and the Rev. Billy Graham.

That attention to detail -- where the viewer is not distracted from the work’s central theme -- is reflected in a towering bronze and granite monument that will be unveiled Saturday (Oct. 10) at Shiloh National Military Park near Savannah, Tenn. Three young Mississippi soldiers converge to protect a flag during a doomed attack on Union positions in April 1862. The monument will honor about 6,000 Mississippians who fought at Shiloh.

Dr. Kim Sessums
Sessums, 56, said that Carmel, Calif., artist Richard Macdonald once told him he might be “cheating.”

That’s because Sessums is a physician in Brookhaven.

While “medical anatomy is different from artistic anatomy,” Sessums says it has informed his work. He made a reference to artist Jamie Wyeth, who studied cadavers at the New York City morgue.

The artist told the Picket he has parallel careers, as an OB/GYN during the day, while spending time on his art early in the morning, at night and on the weekends. He has created sculpture since 1995. “I would sculpt my kids to get the human likeness and humanity.”

Sessums grew up in rural Scott County, Ms. At 4, Sessums lost his father in an automobile wreck; his mother died of cancer a year later. He was raised by grandparents and continued his interest in drawing, eventually branching out into mixed media, pastels and bronzes.

The latter include former Ole Miss football coach John Vaught, campus benefactor Frank R. Day and the African-American Monument at Vicksburg National Military Park (below). That work consists of two black Union soldiers and a field hand.

NPS photo

“The field hand and one soldier support between them the second soldier, who is wounded and represents the sacrifice in blood made by black soldiers on the field of battle during the Civil War,” according to a National Park Service description. “The field hand looks behind at a past of slavery, while the first soldier gazes toward a future of freedom secured by force of arms on the field of battle.”

Sessums said he wanted to honor a people who had been through a tremendous hardship.

The Mississippi monument on Rea Field at Shiloh is not meant to show specific soldiers, but it is based on the 6th Mississippi, which suffered horrendous casualties in several assaults.

“They came up against the 53rd Ohio from a snake-infested swamp. They were trying to make a surprise attack," he said. “This is to show the dedication and valor of these young men.”

Sessums and Dale Wilkerson, superintendent at Shiloh, said artistic sensibilities have changed since the first monuments went up at the park a century or so ago.

Before the dedication of the Tennessee monument in 2005, artistic themes at Shiloh were allegorical, said Wilkerson. “They are kind of meant to represent a theme.”

NPS photo

The 1906 Iowa memorial (above) features a female figure at the base, fashioning an inscription. A bronze eagle is affixed to a small globe at the top of the monument.

“Fame” writes:

Brave of the brave, the twice five thousand men
Who all that day stood in the battle’s shock,
Fame holds them dear, and with immortal pen
Inscribes their names on the enduring rock.

Elsewhere at Shiloh, an angel cradles a Wisconsin soldier.

The 1917 Confederate Monument, the informal name for a work sponsored by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, is very allegorical, said Wilkerson.

Picket photo of Confederate Monument detail

According to the NPS, the central group in this sweeping work represents a "Defeated Victory." The front figure, representing the Confederacy, is surrendering the laurel wreath of victory to Death, on the left, and Night, on the right. Death came to their commander and Night brought reinforcements to the enemy, and the battle was lost.

“None of this was meant to represent real people, but ideas,” said the superintendent.

NPS photo

The Tennessee monument (above) was meant to represent what happened on the battlefield. It, too, depicts three men, one cradling a dead or dying comrade.

Sessums’ new work, Wilkerson said, is even closer to reality. “The 6th Mississippi did charge across the field and had seven color bearers shot down. The one is the middle has been shot, one of them is reaching for the colors and one is reaching to hold up the color bearer.”

The artist said he first made smaller figures after “very rough sketches" before crafting a miniature version. He focuses on physiology. “It gets in my arms, brain and my eyes.” When he goes to the full-size figures, in this case 8 and a half feet tall, “they always take on a life of their own. You hope it changes for the better.”

Sessums submitted a couple design ideas to the Mississippi Veterans Monument Commission. They turned down a camp scene (below), choosing the one that will be unveiled this weekend.

“I love it,” the artist said of the camp scene. “(It is) very intimate and contemplative. Less heroic. Have thought about finishing as a separate study for the monument. Would be a really moving small bronze.”

In an essay with his submission to the commission, Sessums included the story of a real Mississippian at Shiloh, Augustus Mecklin of Choctaw County. The private wrote, “No day of my life has been so full of stirring terrible events as this. Never may I see such another.  Even now my mind is agitated & as I think of what I have seen this day visions dark & bloody float before my eyes & sounds of death & suffering fill my eyes.”

The artist’s aim was to give the man of the ranks “his rightful measure of consideration.”

His son, Jake, 32, helped with  the Shiloh project. Jake helped apply the clay, and then his father scored the surfaces, using different tools.

“It starts taking on life right before your eyes,” Kim Sessums said.

• More on new Mississippi monument at Shiloh

Jake, who operates a food truck in Oxford, with Kim Sessums

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