Michael Jernigan wasn’t looking for a hobby or creative outlet in 1989 when he took up sculpture.
His father was dying of an aneurism, and he was grieving.
“I wanted to honor him and come to terms with his passing,” Jernigan said.
He bought Bruno Lucasi’s “How to Create a Portrait Sculpture in clay,” took photos of his father, went to work and had the finished product cast in bronze.
“I gave it to him for his 69th birthday in 1990,” Jernigan said.
He said his father cried the night the sculpture was unveiled, and his father told him he didn’t know he had that talent.
“I didn’t know I did either, until I tried,” Jernigan said.
Now the image of that first bronze sculpture is the artist’s logo. It launched his artistic career, allowing him to transition from a career as a vice president of a community hospital to a nearly full-time artist.
“Ninety-five percent of what I do now is art-related,” he said.
Jernigan’s current project honors those who serve in the military.
A military veteran himself, Jernigan plans to create 21 portrait sculptures of military personnel. He started the project in 2008 to honor those who serve in the military, training for a year and a half, then traveling to Iraq and Afghanistan to be embedded with American troops. While he was over there, he took measurements and photographed 19 people in military service. He said each sculpture takes about 100 to 120 hours to complete, plus 12 weeks at the foundry where the clay sculptures are cast in bronze.
One of Jernigan’s subjects, Capt. Rickey Fitzgerald of Quincy, met Jernigan in Tallahassee in 2009 when Jernigan was looking for his subjects for the project. The 42-year-old, who is currently in the Florida Army National Guard, said he was glad Jernigan is bringing attention to how soldiers think and feel and representing them as heroes.
“I think it’s really noble of him,” Fitzgerald said.
In the 22 years Fitzgerald has been in the military, he said he has seen a transition in how soldiers are perceived by the public.
Fitzgerald said in a recent phone interview that he had not seen the finished bronze sculpture yet, but he has seen Jernigan’s clay sculpture and he thought it was really good.
“Everybody who knows me, when they see it, they really like it,” he said. They say it looks like me. I’m really pleased with it.”
Fitzgerald’s portrait sculpture and one of Terri Skene, who lives in Tallahassee and is currently stationed in Afghanistan, will be on display as part of the 24th Art in Gadsden exhibition, which opens Nov. 16 and continues through Jan. 26 at the Gadsden Arts Center in Quincy.
After the completed collection of bronze portrait sculptures has been exhibited, Jernigan said he plans to give each sculpture to its subject, thanks to private donations he is still soliciting to cover the cost of each piece – about $18,900, as well as a wooden display stand. He expects to finish the project in 2015.
Jernigan and Fitzgerald plan to attend the opening reception of Art in Gadsden from 6:30 to 9 p.m. Friday, Nov. 16 at the arts center.
Jernigan said he has exhibited other artwork over the years at Art in Gadsden.
“It’s an impressive art venue in such a small town,” he said. “I wish Tallahassee had that kind of enthusiasm here that’s expressed out there.”
Jernigan said he doesn’t remember seeing a sculpture growing up until he was a senior in high school, when he saw a portrait bust in marble at the state capital.
He hopes young visitors attending Art in Gadsden will see his two military portrait sculptures and be inspired to create their own bronze sculptures one day.