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‘She might like it’: Slovenian pipe layer who carved Melania’s statue isn’t laughing with critics

A wooden sculpture of Melania Trump was unveiled July 5 on the banks of the Sava River, five miles outside the first lady’s hometown of Sevnica, Slovenia. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Nobody seems to know for sure whether the statue of Melania Trump, unveiled Friday in Slovenia, is a serious work of art or a parody — not even the art gallery that presented it.

The statue was carved with a chain saw into a living linden tree on the banks of the Sava River, about five miles outside the first lady’s hometown of Sevnica, Slovenia. Rising nine feet from the trunk, the statue is blocky, waving with a hand more akin to a paw. Its eyes are bulging ovals beneath a near unibrow, its nose a pudgy blob. Save for its powder-blue Inauguration Day garb, it looks little like the first lady, leading some locals to poke fun of the statue as a “Smurfette” or “scarecrow,” as the BBC reported.

And yet still there’s something endearing about its rough edges, which reflect its creator: The statue is the work of a blue-collar pipe layer, an amateur woodworker who grew up near Trump’s hometown.

The sculptor, Ales “Maxi” Zupevc, was commissioned by American artist Brad Downey to design and carve the statue in late 2018. Downey, a Kentucky-born conceptual artist, is sometimes known for his public pranks, but insisted in an interview with The Washington Post that this Trump statue is serious. Downey’s idea was to find an artist born in the same town and at the same time as the first lady, as a comment on how two lives rooted in the same place can drastically diverge.

The end result seems in some ways duplicitous: the inspiring backstory of a humble ditch digger, presented by a globe-trotting artistic provocateur. You may laugh at the statue, and then feel bad for laughing. The Slovenian art gallery showing the work doesn’t help, saying maybe it is a prank but maybe it isn’t. “Who knows?” wrote the Museum and Galleries of Ljubljana’s Match Gallery in announcing Downey’s full exhibit, which includes several other political works.

But maybe that’s the point, said Berlin-based curator Lukas Feireiss, who has studied Downey’s art for years.

“I think that’s the beauty of it, that nobody can answer the question: Is it serious? Is it a joke?” Feireiss told The Washington Post. “That ambiguity is the strength of his work, the fact that we can’t really figure it out. That’s always, to me at least, that’s always the power of it.”

A living display of Downey’s love for contradictions, Zupevc and Trump share the same roots but little else. According to Downey, Zupevc and Trump were born in the same hospital in the same month, April 1970, and to Downey, that was part of the allure of selecting Zupevc as the artist. He didn’t want anyone well known or academic, instead seeking a hobbyist whose humility would add just the right touch to the rough chain sawing. The chain saw was Downey’s idea too: a “poetic aggressiveness” to complement the beauty, as he described it.

“I wanted to follow a working-class guy doing art on the side,” Downey told The Post. “He’s always made art on his own. He didn’t make art to become a famous artist. I thought it was charming and honest and it wasn’t corrupted by academia.”

In a documentary short produced by Downey, Zupevc said that he has no formal training in woodworking. He taught himself, carving owls or a bust of a local waitress into sturdy logs for fun, a reprieve from the backbreaking work in the dirt. He works for a small civil engineering and repair company, sometimes digging ditches for cables and pipes seven days a week during the peak season. “Sometimes you’re up to your knees in mud,” he said.

Zupevc said a group of artists came to his home late last year — “very late at night, I have to say that” — and asked him to make the statue of Trump. He was thrilled, and soon they found a healthy tree down by the Sava River. Downey said his only contribution to the actual design was chopping the linden tree to his desired height, then providing Zupevc a photo of her from President Trump’s 2017 inauguration that would serve as his inspiration. In it, she wears a powder-blue coat and pumps, waving gracefully to a crowd, “to the world,” Downey said.

In the video, Zupevc said he liked Melania Trump. He described her as “modest,” a “simple woman."

“But let’s face it,” Zupevc said, changing course, “she owns half of America, while I have nothing.”

Carving Trump would be Zupevc’s first attempt at a statue of a full human figure, he said. That’s why he felt so proud of his work, he said once it was finished. Sitting at the base of the statue, he started to choke up while noting how hard he’d worked, saying he would “give anything for a free Sunday with my wife, just one friggin’ Sunday.” Then, he pointed up at the first lady.

“But I think you can be pleased. Isn’t that so?” he said.

The reviews were mixed.

“If the monument was meant to be a parody, then the artist has been successful,” a woman identified only as Nika, a 24-year-old architecture student, told AFP.

Another resident told British station ITV: “It doesn’t look anything like Melania. It’s a Smurfette. It’s a disgrace.”

But then there was the hometown pride. “She is our beauty, no matter what, even here. She looks like she just walked out of a beautiful naive painting,” as Sevnica resident Mojca Platnar told ABC News.

Feireiss, on the other hand, preferred to see it both ways, finding the crudeness of the statue appealing in its own way. “The roots of the tree are still in the ground. There’s something rough about it. But there’s something very rough about the first lady too,” he said, adding, “To me it is a parody, but at the same time, it’s not. This guy put a lot of work into this.”

Downey said the speculation over whether the statue is meant as a joke hasn’t bothered him, adding that people can interpret the monument however they please. He said residents he interacted with promised to take care of it.

“People might laugh at the aesthetics of the monument,” he said, “but the context plays a very important role. This is not the random positioning of a monument. People may laugh, but the context still resonates.”

Trump’s own thoughts are for now unclear; a spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Zupevc, for one, hoped she would be happy.

“She might come and see the thing,” he said in the film. “She might like it.”

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