There aren’t any guideposts at E.T. Wickham’s sculpture park. No historical markers or signs to tell the story behind the broken-down concrete sculptures that line a couple of rural roads just outside of Palmyra, Tennessee. But E.T. Wickham’s ancestors still live close by, and if you’re lucky you might run into one of them.
Enoch Tanner Wickham isn’t as well-known as fellow Southern folk artists like Howard Finster and Eddie Owens Martin. He has no equivalent of a Paradise Garden or Pasaquan to protect his work, which—although created around the same time period as Finster’s paintings and Martin’s psychedelic compound—hasn’t survived nearly as well. At the original site along Buck Jones Road, a few statues still stand, most of them headless and graffitied and defaced. Wickham’s descendants moved most of the remaining sculptures to Oak Ridge Road and put them behind an wire fence, which though making for not-so-great photos, makes sense.
The years—and the vandals—haven’t been kind to Wickham’s sculptures. When I first found out about them online it was the original statues I saw: standing tall and complete and brightly painted in vintage photos. Wickham made his sculptures throughout the 1950s and ’60s, using concrete, hardware store paint, and whatever wire and metal pieces he could find. His subjects ranged from folk heroes of the past (Daniel Boone, Sitting Bull, Sam Davis, Alvin York . . . ) to heroes of the day, such as the recently assassinated Kennedy brothers. Even Wickham himself makes a cameo appearance, riding on an almost demonic-looking bull. In its time the bull’s eyes were electrified with red light bulbs, but the vandals took those long ago, leaving bits of spray paint in their place. And the E.T. Wickham sculpture, like most of the other ones, is now headless.
Headed to the Wild and Woley West, Remember Me Boys while I am Gone.
E.T. Wickham’s inscription into the base of his own statue reads like an epitaph, and if I didn’t know better I might have thought that the bull-and-rider was his gravestone, but it’s not. That’s around the corner and down in a hollow, in the family cemetery. When we went there we ran into one of E.T. Wickham’s grandsons, mowing the grass around the headstones. He stopped and told us stories about carrying buckets of water from the spring for his grandpa to mix into concrete. And how Wickham used to live with his wife Annie in the old family log home across from the cemetery, but one day upped and moved to a little house in the woods. The family still doesn’t know why.
Wickham’s statues were something of a tourist attraction in his time, but after his death in 1970 they began to decay. Paint chipped away, vandals came with spray paint and sometimes hammers, with intentions to destroy or maybe just take home pieces of the sculptures. No one really knew what to do with them. No one really knew who owned them either, at least according to essays I’ve read. Wickham apparently willed the sculptures to the Catholic Church, which, naturally, wasn’t very interested. For a while, the Tennessee State Museum seemed interested enough to protect and restore the site, but their plans didn’t work out. The statues were eventually sold back to the family, who are currently doing their best to make up for all the years of neglect. There is a website dedicated to Wickham and his work, and supposedly there’s a little museum in one of the homes, but we only found out about it after our trip out to Palmyra. It does sound like a pretty good reason to go back.