Serendipity comes in many forms. For Clete Shields, it was in 1995 at the San Diego Comic-Con, where he met two video store guys who would change his life with a fateful introduction to film producer Elizabeth Avellán and filmmaker Robert Rodriguez—both of whom would lead Shields to Willie Nelson.
On Wednesday night during a very exclusive reception at Avellán's Troublemaker Studios, Shields unveiled an 8-foot sculpture of Willie Nelson in front of Nelson himself and the private fundraising group Capital Area Statues, Inc. (CAST). "It's taken from a different time in [Nelson's] life, but it’s that 'minds eye' Willie—that image of Willie that we all think of, and I hope we captured that," explained Shields.
Some in the crowd suggested passers-by might stop and look to Willie for advice. He had some, "Do as I say, not as I do."
The bronze won't be publicly unveiled until next year, when it will be affixed before the stairs leading to ACL Live—overlooking the street named after him (formerly 2nd Street) and in front of the theater for an iconic television show he helped make famous.
The story behind the unveiling makes for the kind of "good guy makes good" story movies are made of.
Artist Clete Shields started drawing caricatures in Las Vegas, dressed in a jester suit no less. He also enjoyed sculpting comic book and movie characters, and it was at Comic-Con in San Diego where he met two video store guys professing to know Quentin Tarentino and Robert Rodriguez. Turns out they actually did, and they encouraged Shields to show off one of his Pulp Fiction models to Rodriguez and Avellán, who were deep into editing From Dusk Till Dawn. Tarentino introduced the trio, and Rodriguez and Avellán loved the model so much that they had it bronzed and began collecting more of Shields' work—which lead to Shields' contributing sculptural work to the Spy Kids series, as well.
Fast forward a few years—Avellán is now on the CAST board, looking for a sculptor capable of re-creating a legend in bronze.
"She gave me three things they were really looking for [in the sculpture]," Shields said. "Willie could not be playing guitar; he had to be addressing the audience, approachable; and he had to have that twinkle in his eye. When someone gives you an opportunity to sculpt Willie Nelson, that’s a once in lifetime opportunity. I wasn’t going to let anything stop me."
Avellán said choosing Shields for the project was easy. "This kid will do it," she explained to the board. "He's obsessed."
"I called him and said, 'Clete, two words—Willie Nelson.' He did a bust over the weekend, and he captured the Willie we wanted—iconic, late 80s—and he captured the twinkle in his eye."
A crowd filled with a who's who of Austin arts patrons and artists witnessed the unveiling. CAST board members include, among others, Avellán, author Stephen Harrigan, screenwriter and producer Bill Witliff, songwriter and performer Marcia Ball. Pulitzer prize winning author Lawrence Wright serves as president.
"[Nelson] is someone whose music expresses the soul of our community," said Wright as he introduced the unveiling. "Our work is meant to enhance our community by creating monumental works of art to enrich our public places. These works are produced privately and given as a gift to the city."
Asked about his vision for the work, Shields explained, "I hope people just feel warm, you know? They’re walking by having a bad day and they look up, and there’s Willie. And they hear his song in their mind and they see his face, and it gives them a little pep in their step."
As the piece was unveiled, Nelson smiled widely and walked up close, looking over every detail. Then he stepped back to look directly into his own image. He clearly approved.
Like Philosopher's Rock, some in the crowd suggested passers-by might stop and look to Nelson's model for advice. He had some, "Do as I say, not as I do."