On February 22, a photo emerged of Donald Trump touching a bust of himself. On the surface, it wasn’t surprising: Political campaigns tend to generate a lot of iconography, from pins to life-size cardboard cutouts to guacamole bowls, to say nothing of the contents of presidential libraries.
But the Trump bust stood out. There, unmistakably, was the candidate, immortalized, bronzed, staring back at you. It was somewhat foreboding, in other words. It was life-size. Yet, like the candidate, the bust had a cartoonish quality as well—a gentle reminder that if you hadn’t been paying attention, the campaign was still happening, and still unearthing new wonders.
Who could make such a thing?
The sculptor behind the bust is named Keith Allen Johnson. Self-taught, Johnson has been a working artist for 25 years, specializing in sculpture. He works from a studio attached to his home in Flowery Branch, Georgia, about 45 miles northeast of Atlanta. He does some of his sculpture for the money, but also some for love—like the Trump sculpture. He’s never sculpted a presidential candidate before (although he had done presidents).
“This just goes to show what a freak of nature he is, as far as just human force. He certainly dominates the media. He has such an amazing alpha presence around other men in particular. I like grit and roughness if you will,” Johnson says. “I really admire his stature as a man.”
There are actually two busts. Johnson created the first bust, around 14 inches tall, just before Thanksgiving. Sometime in December or January (Johnson can’t quite recall the exact dates), he called Trump’s campaign offices in Atlanta to tell them about the sculpture. Staffers were very receptive, Johnson says, and not long after, he took the bust to the office, where it began greeting visitors.
Johnson had already started work on the one that Trump would later greet: a life-size version, which he completed in February.
The day Trump saw it capped weeks of anticipation for Johnson. When Trump greeted the second bust, he said, according to Johnson, “I need to have that in my office.”
“Oh my God,” Johnson recalled Trump saying. “It’s gorgeous.”
In building the sculpture, Johnson describes his work process as something of a fever dream; he worked for 80 hours on it. He would hole up in his home studio for hours at a time, sometimes forgetting to eat. The idea of the bust had taken hold, he says.
“You begin to kind of get a feel for the driving force of this person’s spirit,” Johnson says. “This was like lightning for me.”
The bust is not made of bronze, but of a material called Hydro-Stone, a very hard type of plaster. It was gilded with a painted bronze finish, and also given a wax patina. If Trump shows interest, Johnson says his goal is to make a third bust that would be real bronze.
“There will never be a sculpture [of Trump] that was created with such perfection as this one,” Johnson says. “I studied over 500 photographs. Worked on every square centimeter of this thing. I know that Trump demands perfection and I gave it to him. He drew it out of me, I should say.”
The sculpting of Trump’s head, however, was not without its challenges, Johnson says, beginning, of course, with Trump’s famously ostentatious hair.
“His hair! To sculpt Donald Trump’s hair in clay? Can you imagine?” Johnson says. “It comes to this point, it’s very, very powerful. I happen to think his hair is amazing. His hair is very strong and powerful. He combs his hair into an actual dovetail.”
As it turns out, Johnson says, hair is one of his specialties. Johnson’s first sculptural subject was Ronald Reagan, an artwork that Johnson says is in the permanent collection of Reagan’s presidential library. Johnson has also sculpted JFK, whose hair he received many compliments on, in addition to George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Harry S. Truman.
The sculpting of their manes was considerably easier, though, compared to Trump. “This definitely by far was the most complex,” says Johnson. “The way he combs it, how far do I accentuate? I’m not trying to be photorealistic. I’m creating a heroic caricature of Donald Trump.”
Trump’s face—“his jawline and the way his jowls are, the weight beneath his chin”—also presented challenges, though by the end Johnson says he was really pleased with the result.
The busts, for now, are with the Trump campaign in Florida, Johnson says. He has not been paid by the Trump campaign, nor does he expect payment, calling this a passion project. (Johnson says he is letting the campaign use the bust as a “gift,” though the campaign-finance law implications of that were not immediately clear on Friday. The Trump campaign did not return a request for comment, while a spokeswoman for the Federal Election Commission says that she could not comment on particular candidates or situations.)
Johnson has already begun building his next Trump project: a full-body sculpture of the candidate.
“I’m going to sculpt Mr. Trump leaning with his elbow on top of Trump Tower,” he says. “My vision is to see it at Trump Tower. You could do it in the center lobby walking in.”
Johnson says he will first make a replica of the sculpture to show Trump, in part to gauge interest and in part to help later guide the building of the larger sculpture.
But even if the full-body sculpture never materializes, Johnson says he remains deeply proud of the second bust. In fact, his thoughts mirror those of its subject. “It will go down,” Johnson says, “as one of the greatest sculptures of a public figure ever done.”