Abe Lincoln’s Wax Sculpture Melted in the D.C. Heat

Poor old Abe Lincoln can’t even keep his head in the afterlife. With triple-digit temperatures threatening Washington, D.C., a six-foot wax re-creation of the Lincoln Memorial hasn’t fared so well — Abe’s head was nearly melting off in the heat. As the sun caused the president to slouch dramatically into his chair, a picture of the artwork took off on social media, where people riffed on Lincoln’s tired, extremely relatable new posture. Also, there were sex jokes.

As the sculpture gained new life online, I spoke with the artist who made it. Over the phone, University of Richmond assistant professor of art Sandy Williams IV discussed the wax piece, its surprise meltdown, and its gleeful reception on social media.

So this is the second time you’ve installed this work — called 40 Acres: Camp Barker — at Garrison Elementary School in Washington, D.C. Both times it has melted in an unexpected way, right?
The first one we made had like a hundred wicks. It was not meant for people to light them all at once, but before we had our unveiling and explained the intended community engagement, people found the sculpture without any sort of prompt. They just noticed it had wicks, then they lit all of the wicks and left it melting for days. So when we came back to have the unveiling, it was already half melted and headless. We were asked to recast and make a second version that only had ten wicks. So the first one was installed in September 2023 and then the second was installed in February 2024.

This time, it went relatively unchanged for months. In the second version, we had little signs that said to only light one or two wicks and blow them out when you’re done. We only had ten wicks and there was only so much those ten wicks could melt. It weighs 3,000 pounds. The wax is rated by the company as having a congealing point of 140 degrees. I previously had joked that when our climate gets bad enough to where we are living in an environment where the ambient heat melts these sculptures, that’s when this work becomes an environmental artwork. I didn’t know that was going to be this summer.

Over the weekend, there have been a ton of jokes about Lincoln’s posture as he melts. To me, it looks like that classic Maxell ad with the guy getting blown away by the speaker. Other people have joked that he’s just overwhelmed by the heat. But the most common riff is that he is receiving oral sex. I was wondering what your reaction to that is.
I was reminded of the reception to Hank Willis Thomas’s new Martin Luther King monument. I don’t know, people like sex jokes.

I’m excited. I don’t think I’ve had an artwork receive this much feedback before. So while that’s not the first place I would go with a reading of what’s happening with the sculpture, I’m really fixated on the environmental implications that this project is now unviable in this climate. But I’m here for it.

My methodology around the work is that I put love into making these projects and present them as a sort of gift to the community. I’m hands-off on the authorship of its form or its reading. And what is fun about wax is that you can never really anticipate how it’s going to melt. I could never get it to melt in that way where he’s falling backward. And yeah, I thought one comment was like, “This is me after I get home from work” or “This is me in the Zoom meeting that could have been an email.” I think it’s funny the way an image can be so viral and have so many different meme interpretations.

It looks like Lincoln’s right leg is a little detached. Is there an internal structure to the sculpture, like some sort of metal skeleton that keeps the sections together?
The leg is another funny story where someone took it, then brought it back a week later. I accepted that as a thing that happened to the sculpture. It mysteriously came back, but it’s hard to pop it back in the same way.

Could you describe the original intention of the piece, and is there any tension between that vision and how people ran with it online?
This artwork is part of the “Wax Monument” series I’ve been doing since 2017. That’s really when I started getting interested in the landscape of public memorials and how they interact with our community. For this work, we chose Garrison Elementary School because it sits on top of Camp Barker, which was a Civil War–era freedmen’s community that we often don’t learn about. I think we learned this history that Lincoln freed the slaves, but we aren’t taught what happened to the early freed communities, the injustices of that period of Reconstruction, and the concept of reparations.

I have no qualms with wherever people take it. I think that is what public artwork is about. That’s what I think love most about public art. The thing that makes me most uncomfortable and the thing I love the most is that I never know what’s going to happen and it’s totally outside of my control. Usually in my more studio practice when I’m presenting at a gallery, I never have those same opportunities to be surprised.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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