Chas Fagan knows more about former President Reagan than just about anybody else who never met the Gipper. Not that he didn’t try. A Sovietologist-turned-artist who’s fast become the sculptor of record for Reagan, Fagan was scheduled to meet the prez in 1999 to do a portrait. “But he had the flu,” laments Fagan, who had to settle for letters, speeches, video, and pictures to size Reagan up. “That was the hardest part,” he says. “I was very close . . . and my one chance to truly meet him did not happen.” [See photos of Ronald Reagan.]
Jump ahead a few years. Now into sculpting, Fagan says he saw in the paper that California wanted to replace its statue of 19th century preacher Thomas Starr King in the Capitol Rotunda with Reagan. The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library was put in charge, Fagan competed for the job, and he won his first Reagan sculpture project. When it was unveiled in 2009, the foundation and Nancy Reagan were so pleased that Fagan was asked to do a statue of the couple for the library and has since won competitions for statues at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and London’s Grosvenor Square near the statue of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, both to be unveiled this year.
For Fagan, a shy Ligonier, Pa., native who used to sell political cartoons to the local newspaper, working on Reagan was a dream come true. “I’m completely interested in the subject,” he says. “My degree was in Soviet studies, so give me a chance to sculpt Reagan and to tell the story of Reagan . . . that’s just an opportunity I just can’t pass up.”
The Ron and Nancy statue at the newly renovated Reagan Museum at the Reagan Library is being unveiled this weekend to cap three days of celebrating his 100th birthday. The two are connected by Reagan’s hand on Nancy’s back. It provides structural support, but by pouring Ron’s arm and hand and Nancy’s back as one piece, Fagan says that symbolically, “the two figures were cast as one.”
Foundation President John Heubusch says, “He did a magnificent job. These statues are the first thing you see when you enter the new Reagan museum, and it’s a perfect way to start your visit.”
Not bad for a guy with no training in sculpting. Fagan credits C-SPAN for his success. Back in 1997, when they asked him to provide some artwork of Americana historian Alexis de Tocqueville for a TV special and tour, he suggested a foot-high bust. They bought the idea, but he’d never sculpted. “I called up a sculptor I met only a month before, and he just directed me to pick up some synthetic clay at Michaels,” says Fagan, 45. “I sculpted it and baked it in my own oven and sacrificed a lasagna dish.”
Illustration by Ed Wexler for USN&WR.