By Palko Karasz
LONDON — Decades after Melania Trump left the rolling hills of Slovenia and became first lady of the United States, a life-size wooden statue of her has appeared on the banks of a river near her hometown.
One arm is raised as if in a wave to Sevnica, her hometown, about five miles upstream. Rising out of a tree trunk laced with ivy, the monument stretches to nine feet tall, towering over visitors.
The statue was commissioned by an American artist, Brad Downey, who said on Saturday that it’s the first monument to Mrs. Trump and a “serious” work of art. But those who saw it when it was inaugurated last Friday gave the work decidedly unkind reviews. “It’s a disgrace,” “It’s a Smurfette” are a few of the comments from residents, according to ITV News.
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That’s because the statue bears little resemblance to the first lady. It looks as if someone had taken a chain saw to its face and run the blades over the nose, eyes and mouth to strip them of their finer features.
That, it turns out, is literally true.
The wooden statue was fashioned out of a tree with a chain saw by a local folk artist, Ales Zupevc, known as Max. He was asked by Mr. Downey, who has been based in Berlin for nearly two decades and is known for provocative public works and pranks, to create the statue as part of an exhibition by Mr. Downey in the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana.
Some observers have described it as a scarecrow. Many said the statue reminded them of unfortunate tributes to other celebrities like a silver statue of the soccer star David Beckham, wearing nothing but tight underwear, and a crazed-looking bust of the soccer striker Cristiano Ronaldo.
In an interview on Saturday, Mr. Downey said the statue was no prank and it had turned out exactly as he intended. “Max wasn’t making a joke,” he said of Mr. Zupevc. “It’s not a joke for him.”
The whole venture was an artistic investigation of Mrs. Trump through her home region, Mr. Downey said, and he wanted a local person who followed the folk tradition in his or her work and was not an academic artist.
He visited the hospital where Mrs. Trump was born and searched the records for someone who was born there around the same time but whose life had taken a different trajectory, he said. And he found his artist in Mr. Zupevc, a pipe layer who carves in his spare time.
“Since the current political situation popped up, I felt compelled to inject a bit of my voice into this narrative,” Mr. Downey said. “The idea to commission the first monument to Melania has some cheekiness to it, but I wanted to do a serious investigation there.”
“It’s a beautiful story that it’s still physically rooted in the area she is coming from,” Mr. Downey said.
His only aesthetic input into the project was to set the height of the statue and to provide Mr. Zupevc with a full-body portrait of Mrs. Trump. Then Mr. Zupevc revved up his chain saw.
Some social media users said the statue perfectly complemented what they called the wooden public appearances of the first lady. One person asked if the artist was the same person who had disfigured a century-old “ecce homo” fresco of Jesus crowned with thorns in a village in northeastern Spain, turning out what may have been one of the worst art restoration projects of all time.
But the pipe layer turned sculptor, who says he and Mrs. Trump were both born in April, says in a video documentary made while he was working on the statue, “I’m pleased with myself.”
“I’ve never done a statue of a whole human figure. Busts yes. Vultures, et cetera, but never a whole person,” he said. He added, “She might come and see the thing. She might like it.””Melania” 2019CreditCreditVideo by Brad Downey.
Sevnica, in rural Slovenia, has welcomed Mrs. Trump’s rise to global prominence with a multitude of tributes and attractions. Local businesses sell everything from Melania salami to Melania slippers. A book was published to tell the “Slovenian Side” of the first lady’s story, and the local hotel reopened last year to host tourists on themed tours.
Officials there could not be immediately reached for comment on this latest contribution to the local scene.
As for President Trump, he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame to mark his achievements in another life, as a television impresario. In 2007, he joked that it was his favorite piece of real estate — before vandals took a pickax to smash it into bits in 2018 and scrawled obscenities on it to protest against his policies.
But there is at least one serious tribute to Mr. Trump, a bust in Oklahoma. Less flatteringly, protesters have erected life-size nude statues of him in several cities in the United States and have flown a “Trump Baby” balloon at protests in several countries.
Mr. Downey said the reaction of residents in the first lady’s native country did not all amount to criticism, and that many were, in fact, happy to have the statue. In fact, he said, residents had promised to take care of it for years to come.