A bronze bust of Arkansas musician Levon Helm was unveiled on the Fayetteville Square on Friday, Oct. 11. Helm’s daughter, Amy Helm, attended the ceremony, at the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History, and performed later that night at George’s Majestic Lounge.
The bust, created by Little Rock sculptor and Arkansas native Kevin Kresse, will have a permanent home in Phillips County near Helm’s boyhood house in downtown Marvell, a structure that was relocated from nearby Turkey Scratch and added to the Arkansas Register of Historic Places in earlier this year. “Trying to do a realistic portrait that feels natural, expressive and not overworked,” Kresse told us, “is a big challenge. I’m very happy with the uniqueness and overall feel of this piece, and I’m extremely proud to have been chosen to do this sculpture of Levon Helm.”
It’s a stunning likeness of the “Midnight Ramble” patriarch and perpetual cutup, one that beckons you to imagine Helm’s arms extended over his drum kit in an easy posture, head tilted to wail about Little Bessie back in Lake Charles: “A drunkard’s dream if I ever did see one…..”
For fans of Helm’s work, Kresse’s bust serves as a reminder of the musician’s buoyancy, joy and remarkable ability to do several things at once in absolute physical harmony. Kresse consulted with a few of Helm’s friends. “My drawings didn’t capture him at all,” Kresse told us. “It was all too stilted. At the second meeting I said I thought he should be smiling, because he was just too joyful to be looking stoic. [At] the third meeting, Levon’s old friend Paul Berry came, and said he thought Levon should definitely be singing. I’d never seen a singing bust, and the way Levon puts all of himself into his singing, I was afraid it would look like someone in an awful lot of pain.”
Once Kresse and co. decided to depict Helm in his 30s, and to incorporate the microphone into the piece, “then his expression had the context to make it all work,” Kresse said.
“I watched countless hours of ‘The Last Waltz,’ freeze framing to grab a detail here and there. I was going after the most expressive forehead, the most expressive eyebrows, etc., to come up with a composite that worked for me. The one thing I remember moving around was the mouth position, trying to find one that didn’t feel like “screaming,” but felt like belting it out with emotion.
A University of Arkansas press release says the bust “will become the centerpiece for the Levon Helm Legacy Project in Marvell,” honoring the drummer and mandolin player whose seminal work with Bob Dylan, The Band and The Hawks put a place called Turkey Scratch on the map.
For more on the Legacy Project, visit levonhelmmemorial.org.