The big tchotchke
The beginnings of the little statuette weren't exactly steeped in idealism.
It was 1977, and Dallas commercial artist Paul McKay was sitting around talking with a friend. "You ought to do something on this 'Roots' thing," McKay remembers his buddy saying.
The TV miniseries--which depicted the enslavement of a fictional African man, Kunte Kinte, and ended with the attainment of freedom by his grandson--was big. With this commercial motive in mind, McKay designed a lifelike figure about 18 inches tall of a young, muscular black man raising his arms in triumph, his chains broken and dangling from his wrists. "I got an idea to show this guy sort of saying, 'By God, I'm free at last,'" he recalls.
McKay took his clay figure to Jim Allan, owner of Allan Products Inc., a Garland manufacturer of whimwhams, bric-a-brac, and such, and Allan agreed to manufacture the figure.
About 2,000 of McKay's sculptures were produced and sold in military exchanges and department stores across the Southeastern United States, Allan recalls. Each fiberglass-reinforced plaster figure retailed for $25. Says Allan, "Artistically, it's the best thing we've ever done."
Sometime in 1978, J.C. Penney was lined up to take delivery of several thousand of the painted statuettes. But before the order was filled, a fire at the Allan factory destroyed the mold. By the time production was geared up again, Allan says, the Penney's order was history, and the "Roots" wave was gone.
For McKay, that was the end of it. That is, until August 2, when, as he puts it, "I saw Fidel Castro standing in front of my sculpture."
More specifically, McKay was reading a story in The Dallas Morning News and saw an Associated Press photo of the Cuban president standing in front of a 10-foot, near-exact version of his little statuette. A caption below the photo explained that Castro was speaking during an Emancipation Day ceremony in Bridgetown, Barbados, commemorating the 160th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean island nation.
"I thought, 'This looks real familiar,'" the 67-year-old McKay recalls, explaining that the only apparent difference between his 21-year-old piece and the statue in Barbados is the proportional distance between the man's raised arms. But even that distinction, McKay later discovered by photographing his "Roots" sculpture from the same angle as the statue depicted in the photo, is negligible.
McKay's thoughts in the month since have run between flattery and "agreeing with a lawyer friend of mine that this is out-and-out plagiarism."
But the creator of the Barbados sculpture calls both thoughts "nonsense." Reached by telephone on Monday at his home in Barbados, sculptor Karl Broodhagen says, "I don't have anything to worry about on that. I haven't seen such a thing. I have my development materials."
The 89-year-old Broodhagen, who retired two years ago after spending nearly 50 years as a secondary-school art teacher, says he has no knowledge of McKay or his statuette. "I haven't heard of him. I am sure of what I have here."
Broodhagen, who says his artistic mainstay is portraiture, explained that he first proposed the work in the mid-1980s to government officials in Guyana. "I did three or four studies," he says. When that didn't result in commissioned work, Broodhagen says, he submitted the idea to the government of Barbados, which agreed to purchase the statue and erected it in 1988 in the middle of a traffic circle in Bridgetown, a city of about 250,000.
Broodhagen calls his work "A Slave in Revolt," although it also has come to be called "Bussa," after a slave who led a revolt against British colonial rule.
He says critics have said his piece looks too much like a weight lifter, but adds that in art, "there are always critics." Four months ago, he unveiled another public work, a bronze statue of Sir Grantley Adams, Barbados' first premier. It, like "A Slave in Revolt," was cast in London, he says.
Broodhagen says it is at best a coincidence that McKay's figure would match his. "If you are going to use the human form and portray emancipation, there is a chance they could look alike. The human body is always the same."
McKay says Broodhagen's work surely is the same as his, right down to the jawline and the pronounced muscles in the neck. Photos of Broodhagen's figure posted on the Internet show that his work has a more forward-leaning posture than McKay's, but both have the left leg leading the right.
Whatever the likeness, McKay says he isn't the type to sue. He describes himself as "the first guy in Dallas to wear a beard," a onetime beatnik who in the late 1960s and early 1970s helped turn the End Zone, a Turtle Creek bar, into a sort of Algonquin Roundtable for friends and drinking buddies like Bud Shrake, Gary Cartwright, and Dan Jenkins.
McKay says he has a made a living on art ever since he graduated from SMU in 1958. Around his studio--a set of rooms on the second floor of his present home near Lakewood--are abstract mobiles that used to hang at the 8.0, several bronze bas-relief portraits of pro golfers commissioned by Royal Oaks Country Club, and a small Elvis statue about the size of his "Roots" piece. Portraits and advertising illustrations have been his main source of income, he says. "I particularly like drawing children. They don't ask you to make 'em 10 pounds lighter and 10 years younger."
McKay's wife, Linda, says she thought his "Roots" piece was far too kitschy when he first designed it. But she concedes, "We needed the money. We weren't as well off then as we are now. But it was the whole mass-marketing thing."
McKay recalls that she was particularly horrified when her husband met actor LeVar Burton--who plays the young Kunte Kinte in the miniseries--at the 8.0 and asked Burton to come over and autograph a few of the statuettes.
In Barbados, Broodhagen says he, too, has thought about reproducing the image. But first, he has had to take on a merchandiser in Barbados who has been making a six-inch replica of his statue and brazenly selling it on the street.
"I had to hire a lawyer to stop him," says Broodhagen, bringing things full circle. Indeed, if McKay's suspicions were true, it would be quite a tale--a commercial tchotchke is turned into fine art, then finds its way back to its original state as a gewgaw.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.