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Icon to Artwork: The process of memorializing a legend

A technician electronically scans Ralph Nielsen’s sculpture of Fred Price to create a 3D rendering, the first step in crafting a life-sized bronze sculpture. Photo by Dan Cullinane

By Dan Cullinane
Freelance Writer

One of Johnson County’s musical legends, Fred Price, will soon be memorialized in Bronze in downtown Mountain City. With Long Journey Home, the Johnson County Center for the Art’s annual celebration of the area’s storied musical history just around the corner, we look at the sculpture’s long journey from idea to actuality.

Fred’s name is synonymous with the unique Appalachian sound known as old-time music. He lived his life on the family farm where he grew up and drove a school bus to help make ends meet. The music he made with his friends, Doc Watson, Clint Howard, and Tom Ashley, was heard worldwide. His friends, family, and neighbors mostly remember how he made them smile with his music, and now this legendary musician, who called Johnson County home for his entire life, will be immortalized in a life-sized bronze sculpture at the Johnson County Center for the Arts. The journey from icon to artwork began shortly after Price’s death in 1987.

“I’d only known him for a couple of years,” said Ralph Nielsen, a veteran Hollywood production designer who had relocated to East Tennessee. “Lois Dunn (Fred’s daughter) invited me to his funeral, and it was the most moving experience of my entire life.”

Thousands had turned out to honor the beloved neighbor who had performed on national television and at Carnegie Hall during the folk music revival of the 1960s.

“He was such an outstanding player and such a good, humble man,” said Nielsen, “He really put his mark on the world, and I thought the world needed to remember who he is.”

In 1989, Nielsen crafted a small sculpture of the famous fiddler to serve as a model for a larger one. On July 12, 2021, his model took its first steps toward realization when the scanning process was completed to create a life-size rendering that sculptor Val Lyle will use to create the life-sized bronze statue Nielsen has long envisioned.

Bear with us a moment as we describe what happens next. First, Lyle will cover the 3-D foam rendering resulting from the scans with oil clay to create the first “positive,” which will then be covered in rubber to make the first “negative” mold, which she will pour crystalline wax to form another “positive,” which will then be dipped 25 or so times into a high-temperature slurry. Once dry, it will be super-heated to remove the wax, creating another, highly durable negative, into which bronze heated to 2,300 degrees will be poured, and voila, sculpture.

Lyle, whose deep Mountain City roots have her so excited to be a part of this process, plans to do it live in a storefront window downtown, and she will also be teaching a workshop on portrait sculpting at the Johnson County Center for the Arts on July 29, 30 and 31.

“I’m thrilled to be involved in a project that brings attention to our Appalachian heritage and our musical heritage here in Johnson County,” said Lyle.

A piece of art that began as a collaboration between friends who loved music became a collaboration between artists who loved the musicians and became a collaboration between the artists and the community the musicians loved.

“Johnson County has so much to be proud of,” said Cristy Dunn, the Executive Director of the Johnson County Center for the Arts. “I can’t wait to see Ralph’s vision come to life. Val is a phenomenal sculptor, and we are fortunate to have her teaching and working in Johnson County.”

For more information on this and other events at the Johnson County Center for the Arts, call (423) 460-3313 or visit jocoartcenter.org.