Florida hosts its own Capitol sculptor

Mar 9, 2012

For the past few lawmaking sessions, a true artist has been laboring in the fourth floor rotunda of the Florida Capitol.  Tom Flanigan reports there’s a reason Sculptor Michael Jernigan is creating his latest project in one of the Capitol’s busiest places…

The Capitol’s fourth floor rotunda can be a crazed beehive of activity…especially during the final days of a legislative session. Lobbyists pack the marble-floored expanse between the main doors of House and Senate chambers.  Issue advocates yak on cell phones, or gaze anxiously at the big-screen TVs that broadcast legislative proceedings.  From time-to-time, lawmakers will hold media events in the space. 

But, in the middle of all the chaos, there is small island of calm and creativity.  A man, dressed in military combat camouflage, is sculpting a life-size head-and-shoulders portrait out of clay.  The person depicted is also obviously in the U.S. armed forces.  The artist is Michael Jernigan who now lives in Tallahassee.  He says being an artist was not a childhood aspiration.

“I grew up in rural North Carolina and didn’t see a real sculpture until I went on the senior class trip to Raleigh.”  
In fact, Jernigan was well into adulthood before he even tried his hand at sculpting.  He taught himself out of books at the beginning, then studied under some modern masters.  Today, his portraits can be found all over the Southeast.  But most are in or near the Florida CapitoL.

“In the past, I’ve done my hand holding the Palm Beach ballot.  I’ve done the donkey and the elephant in the Palooza Oscar figure.  I’ve done senate presidents and house speakers.  So it’s a way for me to kind of capture the history of what’s happening in state government in the moment and then put it in bronze so it’s around for a long time.”

But a few years back, Jernigan took on a new project, his biggest yet.  He’s sculpting portrait busts of twenty-one members of the military.  They range from former U-S forces in Afghanistan Commander, now CIA Director, General David Patraeus on down.

“Part of wanting to do this project is to make it all-inclusive so that I included the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard.”

Jernigan says he starts working from photographs of his subjects.  But the finishing touches are done from life.  On this particular day, Army Captain Rickey Fitzgerald from Quincy, just west of Tallahassee, is at the Capitol for his sitting…

“Well it initially started out during our deployment.  Before we deployed, we were mobilized actually at the Capitol Building here.  He came up to me and introduced himself and talked about what he was doing and what he wanted to accomplish.”

Why did Jernigan select Fitzgerald for his project?  Fitzgerald says it was something he’d said that wound up in the local newspaper:

“Well, I was asked how I feel about leaving and I said it was all about doing my service and completing my duty and I think those were what actually pulled it over to him.”

Captain Fitzgerald is still a bit awestruck by the whole thing….

“This is awesome.  It’s awesome.  The first time I saw it, it surprised me.  It caught me off guard.  It’s just like I envisioned myself being.”

Jernigan has eighteen more works in need of finishing touches.  Since the subjects are scattered all over the country, he says that will mean a road trip…

“A company out of Goshen, Indiana – Keystone R.V. Company – has loaned the project a Toy Hauler R.V. that we can take around to each of the individuals and do a final sitting with them.”

It’ll all be done in a few years….

“The schedule is to finish the sculptures up by October, 2013 and then have three months for the exhibits to come together.  We will then have the first exhibit at the top of the State Capitol here in February of 2014.”
A national hall of heroes, the creation of which has been going on in the middle of the hustle and bustle that is the Florida Capitol Building.