Finishing touches on Truman statue for Capitol

By Mike Genet mike.genet@examiner.net
The Examiner

When Tom Corbin got the letter from the Truman Library Institute in March 2019, revealing he’d been selected to sculpt the statue of President Harry Truman that will be in U.S. Capitol Rotunda, he was feeling a bit under the weather.

The letter, he said, began as if he’d be thanked for his proposed statue as a finalist but ultimately not selected.

Tom Corbin is creating a statue of Presdient Harry Truman set to go on display at the U.S. Capitol next year.

Then came the congratulations, and “my cold went away.”

“It’s probably one of the most prestigious commissions a sculptor can get,” he said.

Corbin is putting the finishing touches on the model cast that will be sent to a foundry to make the bronze Truman statue. Next year, it is to be unveiled in the Capitol. Each state has two statues at the Capitol, highlighting historically significant people. States occasionally will switch a statue, as Kansas did with President Eisenhower and California did with President Reagan. The Truman statue will replace that of Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, prominent in Missouri’s early decades of statehood. Francis Preston Blair is the other Missouri statue. 

From the artist studio in Corbin Bronze, a converted 1912 firehouse just across the state line in Kansas City, Kansas, Corbin described the thought process behind his portrayal of Truman.

“We were given carte blanche on what to do for pose and attitude,” he said. The renowned area sculptor decided to depict the president descending a series of stairs, “as if he’s going to greet a head of state or a good friend.”

A moving president, he said, would be in contrast to many other statues in the National Statuary Hall Collection, from which he “felt a stiffness and unapproachability.”

That mindset, Alex Burden said, is one reason the Truman Library Institute, the non-profit fundraising arm of the Truman Library and Museum, chose Corbin for the commission.

“The fluidity in the torso and body, the sense of motion – he walked and was a vigorous, healthy individual,” Burden, the institute’s president, said of Truman. “It was an important part of his personality.”

Burden said Corbin’s amount of research showed in his detail with the submitted statue, and his reputation was well-known by selectors. Corbin’s bronze works can be seen locally at such places as the Country Club Plaza, the University of Missouri-Kansas City, the Firefighters Memorial, the Kauffman Foundation and the U.N. Peace Plaza outside the Community of Christ Auditorium in Independence. Numerous celebrities count a Corbin work among their private collections.

“We all knew the name and wanted to make sure we were going to work with a sculptor of sufficient caliber to work on this project,” Burden said.

From Corbin’s scale-model proposed statue, the foundry in Oklahoma that will cast the statue did computerized scans and created the model torso and legs. Corbin traveled there to put finishing touches on that portion, and he is doing final details on the head and hands for the statue and will take them to the foundry himself.

The Institute raised private funds to pay for the statue, and while it didn’t go into the Capitol in 2020 as planned – the 75th anniversary of Truman becoming president – it will be the Institute’s signature event in the 2022, and Burden said there will be anniversaries in 2023 of several notable events in Truman’s presidency, such as diplomatic recognition of Israel and desegregating the armed forces.

“It’s all flowing together as if we purposefully planned it, which we didn’t,” Burden said, “but someone was looking out for us.”

Corbin said his family has been constantly asking about the statue. 

“They’ll ask ‘How’s Harry? Is he done yet?’” he said.

“I’m so close to this piece, partly because I had so much source material,” Corbin said. “Usually I just make up a piece, and obviously I couldn’t do that with this. 

“There have only been seven presidents sculpted for Statuary Hall in the Capitol, and Harry will be the eighth. To be given such a prestigious commission to produce a president is phenomenal, and what comes with that is a lot of responsibility, but a lot of excitement.”