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SCULPTOR GAVE REAGAN A ‘FACIAL’

By Ed Reiter

 

          The American West figured prominently in the election of Ronald Reagan as 40th president of the United States. Though born and raised in Illinois, he himself became a Westerner – and his landslide victory over Jimmy Carter in the presidential election of 1980 was built upon a base of Western votes.

 

          It was fitting, then, that the sculptor who was chosen to design the official inaugural medal for the President-elect was – like Reagan – a man of the West. And to make the marriage of subject and artist even more ideal, the sculptor was a man best known for his works on Western themes.

 

          That sculptor, Edward J. Fraughton, and his medallic creations might not have been familiar to most numismatists, but he was widely known and well respected in the world of American art – and remains so today, three decades later.

 

          Fraughton (pronounced Fraw-ton), then a 41-year-old resident of South Jordan, Utah, had built his reputation, to a great extent, on a series of three-dimensional portraits of cowboys, Indians and similar subjects suggestive of the

Nation’s Old West. These collector-size sculptures were cast in bronze, as a rule, and sold to a growing number of Fraughton enthusiasts. Perhaps the most popular was a 17-inch-high piece called “Where Trails End,” which depicts a cowboy standing in a snowstorm, clutching his collar as the wind swirls around both him and his fallen horse.

 

          Smaller-scale portraiture also is among Fraughton’s specialties. He has crafted dozens of bas-relief portraits – some for medals, others for such purposes as letterhead or concert program logos.

 

          The idea of creating a medal for Ronald Reagan first occurred to Fraughton several years earlier, when a committee called Citizens for the Republic was laying the groundwork for Reagan’s presidential campaign.

 

          “At that time,” he told me in a 1980 interview, “I did some sketches for a prospective medal which I thought might be used to help raise funds for the committee. But nothing ever came of the idea.”

 

          Rather than portraying Reagan himself, the sketches depicted what Fraughton perceived as “his concepts.” As he envisioned it, the medal would have shown Thomas Jefferson on one side, “creating the Constitution,” and Abraham Lincoln on the other.

 

          Fraughton had been active for years in Republican Party activities in Utah, and had been a “Reaganite” for nearly two decades, ever since hearing the future President speak there on behalf of a GOP senatorial candidate.

 

          “At that time,” he remembers, “I was very impressed with the things he said, and I kind of visualized him some day perhaps running for the presidency. So for me, in that sense, the inaugural medal represents the culmination of an idea that goes back quite a few years.”

 

          Fraughton was introduced to Reagan about seven years earlier by Robert Rishell, an artist friend who had painted the official portrait of Reagan, then governor of California, for the Statehouse in Sacramento. He later met the governor several other times at political gatherings or social affairs – and on one of those occasions, Reagan saw examples of his artwork. There was, however, no “real close friendship,” the sculptor said – and he said there was no truth to published reports that he was selected as inaugural medal sculptor at Reagan’s personal request.

 

          “I don’t think he had a thing to do with that,” Fraughton said. “He remembered me when we met, after I was picked to do the medal – but I think he remembered my work more than anything. I heard he was pleased that I was chosen, but he didn’t have anything to do with that selection: It was strictly a decision made by the Inaugural Committee.”

 

          Fraughton did acknowledge actively pursuing the assignment. During the campaign, he made a number of inquiries, trying to ascertain from Reagan aides what was being done about the medal. At that point, however, the campaign staff apparently was preoccupied with getting the candidate elected.

 

          “I couldn’t get any answers,” Fraughton said, “so eventually I contacted Medallic Art Company.”

 

          By then, Reagan had won the election and Medallic Art, of Danbury, Conn., was preparing a presentation for the Inaugural Medal Committee, headed by Republican Sen. Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon.

 

          “When I called Medallic Art,” Fraughton said, “they told me, ‘You know, we had absolutely no idea that you would be interested in doing this. But since you are, can you very quickly put together a sketch in clay – something we can show

the committee.’ I had only three or four days, and I hadn’t done a thing up to then, but I dropped everything else and put together a model right away.”

 

          That model was one of several which Medallic Art submitted for review by the committee – and it ended up being the panel’s unanimous choice. Once he had been selected, Fraughton flew to California, where he spent three days – or rather, small portions of three days – meeting with Reagan and refining his design by sketching his subject from life.

 

          “I could only spend a short period of time each day with Governor Reagan,” he recalled, “and the first day was more of a general get-together, with representatives present from Medallic Art, the Inaugural Committee and other participating agencies. So really, there were only two sittings. But even so, it was helpful, of course, to have a chance to work on him from life.”

 

          On the second day of that visit, which took place Dec. 2-4, 1980, Reagan allowed the sculptor to make a life mask as an aid in preparing the medal. This required the President-elect to strip to the waist and have his head and neck covered with plaster of Paris for a period of about half an hour. George

Washington had posed in this manner for French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon nearly two centuries earlier, but no similar sitting ever had taken place in the 80-year history of presidential inaugural medals.

 

          “The governor is a great listener, and he listened very closely when I told him why I wanted to do this,” Fraughton said. “He told me he had had a mask made once before, some years ago – but when I checked it out, I found it wasn’t

something I could use. So I asked if he would let me make a new one and he didn’t really seem to resist.

 

          “I think he’s been made up enough, in the movie industry, that he’s used to having people work on his face.”

 

          All other business requiring Reagan’s attention had to be suspended while the mask was being prepared. It was clear, though, at the outset, that the job would have to be right the first time around.

 

          “Before we covered him,” Fraughton related, “he said, ‘Well, boys, there’ll be one take on this one.’ He expected some important phone calls, so we had just a limited time and we had to work very quickly. I had him sit in a chair and put his head back against a wall so he could just be in a relaxed position, and he had to stay there for 30 or 35 minutes – including 15 to 20 minutes in which he was completely under the mask.

 

          “When we pulled it off,” the sculptor added, “he said, ‘Well, that last 10 minutes gets kind of long.’ He was very good about the whole thing, though; I couldn’t have asked him to be any more cooperative. And imagine a person in his

position even submitting to something like this; a lot of people would have refused.”

 

          Fraughton felt that the life mask provided important little details that otherwise might have been missed.

 

          “The best possible situation,” he said, “is to work from life; I do my best work from a live model. But the next best tool is to do a mask: with a mask, you have something you can carry home to your studio – something that defines the shape of the skull and other significant features.

 

          “There’s a certain amount of asymmetry in everyone’s face, and that becomes apparent with a mask. Things of this sort simply don’t show up in a photograph. So I would say the mask was a tremendous help.”

 

          In fashioning a portrait, Fraughton strives to capture not only the physical characteristics of his subject, but also the inner spirit.

 

          “The challenge of sculpture,” he said, “is not only to make a physical likeness but to have an emotional likeness, as well.”

 

          This, he said, was difficult in the case of the Reagan medal because of the limited time. Following his visit to California, he had just a matter of days to complete his portrait of Reagan and finish work, as well, on the medal’s reverse design, which features the west front of the U.S. Capitol Building, where the coming inauguration would take place.

 

          "People today demand and expect things to be done very quickly,” Fraughton said, “but sculptors are traditionally not the fastest workers around. In this type of work, I think you need to study things all the way around – and that takes time. Often times, you need a moment of just walking down the street and thinking about what you’re doing. But that wasn’t possible in this case, of course.

 

          “I think I’m satisfied with what I came up with, though,” he said. “It’s hard for an artist to know about such things; he really never knows how well he’s done until a period of time has gone by, and then he can look back on his work and judge it more objectively.

 

          “But I don’t think I need to be too apologetic. With everything I do, I just do the best I can in the time I have.”

 

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