When Oldham County decided to commission a statue of Colonel William Oldham, for whom the county was named, Matt Weir was a pretty obvious choice as the artist.
Weir has experience making monumental artwork, has designed sculptures of people before, and also owns the Falls Art Foundry in the Portland neighborhood.
But there was one snag — no one knows what Colonel Oldham looks like. He was a Revolutionary War hero who died in 1791 during the battle in the Northwest Territory against Native Americans.
Weir tried to look for portraits of potential relatives and descendents, but there were no common features.
Then, Weir had an idea.
“I was just like, ‘This person’s name is Will Oldham. And I know a Will Oldham, so let’s see if these things match up,’” Weir said. “I think I called Will and was just like, ‘Hey, I got this sculpture project I’m working on’ and was wondering if you would want to look into this with me.”
And it turns out that Will Oldham — perhaps better known by his stage name, Bonnie Prince Billy — is actually distantly related to Colonel William Oldham.
“Years ago my father had done a lot of genealogy research and looked into things, and was able to answer our childhood questions of ‘Are we related to Oldham County?’” Will Oldham said.
I spoke with him at Weir’s studio. On the coffee table in front of him, there was a plaster cast of his face.
“We tracked you through Will’s brother, Samuel.” Weir said.
At that point, Weir decided to use Oldham as his only model for the Colonel Oldham statue. He reached out to a Revolutionary War researcher and reenactor at Locust Grove to find out what type of clothing would be true to the time period (a Revolutionary-era coat and a Kentucky long rifle) and had Oldham pose for a bunch of photos to serve as a guide.
Then, Oldham agreed to allow Weir to make a “life mask” of his face; it was a 45 minute-process where his face was covered in thin layers of plaster. He had nose holes to breath, but had to be completely still.
The two listened to John Adams’ “Shaker Loops” to pass the time.
“If you have any — which I do — low-level claustrophobia issues, it’s a challenge going into,” Oldham said. “But ultimately, it’s an opportunity for enforced stillness or contemplation.”
“And darkness,” Weir added.
The complete statue, which was a two-year process from start to finish, stands seven-feet-tall outside the courthouse in LaGrange.
And it looks exactly like Bonnie Prince Billy — minus his mustache. Will Oldham has not seen the complete work yet.
“It’s their statue, Oldham County’s statue,” Oldham said. “And I think it should stay that way for a while. Let people come to know it and hopefully love it for what it is. And maybe in 32 years we’ll do a show there, or something like that.”