E. T. Wickham - a dream destroyed

 

In 1952, a splendid story of American Folk Art began along a rural road in Tennessee. It is a story of one man's creative urges and the works of art that he was inspired to share with the world. In some ways, it is an inspiring story, but in other ways, it tells of the constant struggle between the artist's urge to create and the all too human urge of others to destroy.

Enoch Tanner Wickham, E. T. or Tanner to friends, was born in 1883 in Montgomery County, Tennessee - across the Cumberland River from the city of Clarksville. He left school in the 6th grade after the death of his father. Wickham was a farmer throughout his life. Before 1952, he had created only a few pieces of art. When he retired in 1952, he and his wife moved to a plot of land along Buck Smith Road near Palmyra, Tennessee. It was here that he turned his creative talent and strong work ethic to the task of fulfilling his artistic vision.

During the next 18 years, from the age of 69 until his death in 1970 at the age of 87, Tanner Wickham would create a wondrous garden of statues. The statues were constructed with skeletons made of 'found' metal parts, painted concrete bodies, and various items of decoration. These life-size and larger statues were one man's artistic vision.

No account records why Tanner Wickham created these statues. In many ways it is a shame that E. T. didn't have a friend to play Dr. Watson to his Holmes. All we are left with are the fruits of his labor.

At the height of his creative outpouring, the statues received well-deserved recognition. Many of the statues were dedicated in ceremonies that were attended by well-known political figures. The most notable dedication was for one of his earlier statues, which was a tribute to soldiers killed in WWI and WWII. The dedication was attended by United States Senator Estes Kefauver and the commanding officer of Fort Campbell, General William Westmoreland of Vietnam fame.

Sadly, the story of E. T. Tanner and his art is not simply the story of one man's artistic endeavors. The story took a sad turn after his death in 1970. In the ensuing 35 years, most of the statues have suffered at the hands of vandals. Some of the statues have been completely destroyed, while others have been damaged beyond repair.

Fortunately, the story is far from over. Some of the statues have been moved off-site to preserve them and efforts are underway to preserve the site in-situ These efforts are on-going and anyone interested in helping to preserve this slice of Americana is urged to become involved in the preservation efforts. Contact E. T. Wickham's grandson, Arlen Schibig email: arlen.schibig@wickhamstonepark.com

There is much more to learn about E. T. Wickham and his art than you will find in this article. If you would like to learn more follow the links below. The first two sites were built by two of Wickham's grandsons. The Customs House Museum has a very good site dedicated to the statues and includes several well-written articles about the man and his art.

Links:

Excellent site about E. T. Wickham's art created by his grandson

Another site with additional pictures by another grandson

An online exhibition by The Customs House Museum Clarksville, TN