By Marc B. Boucai
What responsibility does an artist have when representing a cherished historical figure? What standards of “authenticity” must the work achieve in order for a community to support local public art? When the lauded figure in question is none other than former President John F. Kennedy, the answers can often be controversial and contestable.
Claude Solnik’s finely wrought new play, “A Walk on the Beach,” billed as a “Kennedy story you haven’t heard,” tells the story of retired plumber turned sculptor and Hyannis native David Lewis, and the over eight year-long battle he fought to build and fund a statue imagining JFK and his son walking arm in arm down the beach as adults.
Solnik’s play is based on extensive interviews with David Lewis, the play’s protagonist, who, circa 2000, began sketching various possible images for a bronze sculpture commemorating both JFK and his son JFK Jr. After garnering initial support from Caroline Kennedy and Ted Kennedy, Lewis’s sculpture project hit a few snags when the local paper in Hyannis began to accuse the artist of changing history and tarnishing JFK’s legacy. Other members of the community cited that, just a few years after the tragic plane crash that took the life of JFK Jr., the statue could be seen as an insult, not a tribute.
It is precisely the importance of JFK’s legacy that is at stake in both Lewis’s statue and Solnik’s play. The playwright stressed the importance of JFK as symbol, both real and constructed: “If this was a statue of anyone else, I don’t think people would have such strong feelings. Many feel like the Kennedys are part of their family — or they are part of the Kennedys. The passions are very strong ... He became an icon. He made many, many mistakes. And yet, people think of him as an idealist ... Our view of JFK to begin with is imagination as much as actual events.”
It is this line between history and artistic liberty, between truth and imagination that gives “A Walk on the Beach” its dramatic momentum. The tension between sculpture as representing historical “truth” and artistic interpretation come to a head when the editor of the local paper begins to accuse Lewis of tainting JFK’s memory.
Solnik explains how, “at least in the play, the media does everything it can to turn the statue into an issue. The local paper writes editorials and articles questioning the idea of ‘imagination’ rather than history as the basis for a sculpture. It appears that the publication favors negative letters rather than those that support it. The voices of those opposed to things can be louder than those in favor. That’s the way media operates frequently.”
The play’s most heated scene occurs between the sculptor (played by Jack Coggins) and the local paper’s editor (John Carhart). Lewis tells the editor (and the audience) that “art can be about imagination, changing reality. You can use art to imagine a different world. You can try to stop the bullet. You can try to put John John’s plane back in the air.” Solnik empathizes with Lewis’ position, noting that as an artist, “you don’t have to be a reporter. You can recreate the world and imagine it differently.”
Though set in a pre-social media landscape (Cape Cod between 2000 and 2007), Solnik’s play touches on contemporary issues around the role of the artist, the activist and the citizen journalist. It demonstrates how an artist, simply by sticking to their creative ideas, can inadvertently stir up a local dialogue about the role of art in civil society. In the case of Lewis, his initial sculpture was never fully produced. A miniature of the JFK/John John piece is on display at the JFK Museum, and recently, a life-size sculpture of JFK alone designed by Lewis opened in front of Kennedy’s memorial in Hyannis.
Solnik, a reporter by profession, uses the ear of a journalist and the heart of a poet to make clear how questions of art and accuracy, history and truth, memory and slander can be summoned up by one image. Although technically a story about the Kennedys, “A Walk on the Beach” is about the role of art in everyday life, and the way the act of creation can be a political, civic act, one that “can try to stop the bullet” and imagine a better, more just world.