By Kate A. Hallock
Ten years in the making, Wayne W. Wood’s latest historical undertaking is more than the sum of its 400-plus pages and 200-plus photos, and so much more than what is implied by its title: LIFE: The Untold Story of Charles Adrian Pillars.
While fascinating to learn about the mostly unknown man behind what is perhaps Jacksonville’s most known sculpture, ”Life,” in Riverside’s Memorial Park, Wood’s tome of historical nonfiction also draws readers into parallel events that shaped two cities. The stories of the Chicago fire of 1871 and Jacksonville’s Great Fire of 1901 are told in wonderful historical detail, interwoven with Pillars’s story and that of his family, friends, foes, and those who were influential in the sculptor’s life.
“It’s a historical narrative that’s totally true,” says Wood, a Riverside resident once named Jacksonville’s Most Interesting Man. “Well, mostly. There’s nothing that can be proven untrue,” he says with a chuckle and a twinkle in his eye.
Wood is painstaking in his attention to detail but also very engaging in the presentation of Pillars’s story, from the sculptor’s birth in a rural Illinois town in 1870 to his death in 1937 in Jacksonville’s Clifton neighborhood on the Arlington River. Readers will be surprised to learn of the breadth of Pillars’s career as Wood skillfully weaves the story of the life of the troubled sculptor into details about major historical events, places, and people.
Who was Charles Pillars?
As a young lad, Pillars’s imagination was first engaged artistically through sketching and painting, but his art teacher, barely 10 years older than her student, encouraged him to try a new medium: modeling clay. Thus was born a passion that led Pillars on a roller coaster ride of some fame, little fortune, and a fervor to be known as Florida’s greatest artist, a passion—some may say obsession—which dominated him until the day he died.
Born early in the 50-year span of the heyday of American public sculpture (1865-1915), Pillars was fully engaged in the struggle to find commissions to create statues, sculptures, monuments, and memorial plaques that featured a blend of realism and embellishments. Although he entered many competitions for monuments commemorating war heroes, the only one he executed for commission was the statue of General Edmund Kirby Smith, which was placed in the National Statuary Hall. The statue represented the state of Florida from 1917 until this year, when it was relocated somewhere into the bowels of the U.S. Capitol.
Unless you are familiar with the history of Memorial Park, it is unlikely you will have recognized Charles Adrian Pillars’s name and, unless you have studied art history, it’s less likely you know the magnitude of his works. Perhaps part of Pillars’s obscurity stems from the beaux arts style he embraced and clung to despite the advance of modernism around the turn of the 20th century. Perhaps he lost bids for his defining opportunities; you must read the book to find out.
Why Pillars? Why now?
Wood’s fascination with the sculptor Pillars began at an early age when, as a young boy visiting Memorial Park, he first laid eyes on a gigantic nude male made of bronze, whose name appeared to be “Life.” Later, as a Jacksonville optometrist, Wood heard intriguing stories about the obscure sculptor from a patient who had worked as Pillars’s assistant in the 1930s. The die was cast; here was a story worth pursuing.