Wright Flyer monument sculptor recalls 24-year-old project

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- The successful career of a south Alabama sculptor began at his father's animal feed business and eventually led to his sculpting Maxwell-Gunter's Wright Flyer monument 24 years ago for the base's Air Park.

"After graduating from Auburn University with a degree in applied arts, I worked in my dad's Brundidge, Ala., feed business in the advertising and public relations division," Larry Godwin said. "We sold all kinds of feed for horses, dogs, poultry, cattle, and so forth, and that led us to building floats for local parades that featured animals we carried feed for. Ultimately, that resulted in my being commissioned to do the Wright Flyer monument at Maxwell."

He said they first did the float in the traditional fashion using crate paper and flowers, but the floats were not durable enough. So, the next step was to use metal. Eventually, the large metal animals were animated, and the rooster they built for one of the floats still stands outside his art gallery near Brundidge.

Mr. Godwin said after awhile he realized he didn't want to stay in the feed business, so he began doing painting, then opened a gallery on two acres of land he bought outside of Brundidge. His first show featured his paintings and the one and only wood sculpture he had done.

"A lady came to that first show, looked around and asked, 'Where is your sculpture,'" he said. "I took her to an area behind the main building and showed her the wood figure. She replied, 'Is that it? It was then I decided I had better get some experience with sculpture."

Over the coming years, Mr. Godwin toured Europe, opened a second gallery in Dothan, Ala., and participated in a number of projects in southern Alabama and Montgomery. He was also a first lieutenant in the Alabama National Guard and was called to active duty as a platoon leader and training officer in 1961.

In 1985, he was commissioned to do the Wright Flyer monument for the 75th Anniversary of Powered Flight. The sculpture was to be located at Maxwell, and a large dedication ceremony took place Sept. 18, 1985 that included rides in a flying replica of a 1917 Wright Flyer.

"I was contacted by Col. Hank Staley about doing the memorial. I knew his wife Jo, who was also an artist, and Hank was instrumental in me being involved in the project," Mr. Godwin said. "I originally proposed a more futuristic sculpture for the monument, but Hank said, 'No, we want something more traditional and realistic.' We ended up with the model of the 1910 flyer that is at Maxwell today. Col. Ed White of the Air Command and Staff College faculty was also involved in the project, and he made several trips to my Brundidge facility during construction of the monument."

He said the final approved design was constructed in his workshop/warehouse, and the 'work drawings' were painted actual size on the warehouse floor. He said people often ask him where his original drawings are, and he tells them to look at the floor of his warehouse.

"This was my first Wright Flyer sculpture, and I made it from stainless steel," Mr. Godwin said. "The sculpture of Orville Wright, [which] sits in the pilot's seat, was made by my brother from sculpted aluminum. My brother was a little slow in producing the Orville sculpture, and I told him, 'We are going to do the dedication Orville or no Orville.' Orville arrived at the last minute in the open trunk of his car, and that was kind of a grand entrance if you will."

The cost of the monument in 1985 was about $200,000, but Mr. Godwin estimates the sculpture would be in the neighborhood of $400,000 in today's market. He has since done similar Wright Flyers for Embry Riddle Aeronautical University at their Daytona Beach, Fla. campus; the city of Dayton, Ohio; and Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.

There are also a number of sculptures around Montgomery that Mr. Godwin has done. They include the Equinox concrete and aluminum sculpture at Alabama State University that measures 50 feet square by 24 feet high; the Wall of History in downtown that depicts the history of the city of Montgomery in six bronze panels; an 11-foot high fountain sculpture at the Montgomery Cardiovascular Institute; and sculptures and fountains at the city's Eastdale Mall.

Mr. Godwin has also done work for Walt Disney World, The Hard Rock Café in Chicago, Ill., and the city of Headland, Ala. He said one of his favorite sculptures is the statue of Wilbur Wright at Wright-Patterson AFB. He likes it because the coat Wilbur is wearing floats as if caught by the wind, and that is very difficult to achieve in the casting of a sculpture. However, his "dream project" would be to do a water tower sculpture that is a water tower but doesn't look like a water tower.

"Actually, there are many urban objects, that we all take for granted and recognize as what they are, that could be very beautiful if done in sculpture," he said.