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Here's Johnny! 

The story behind the statue that will be Johnny Mercer's 100th birthday present.

100 years after the day he was born here, one of Savannah's favorite native sons, Johnny Mercer, will be honored with a life-size bronze statue that will be unveiled next Wednesday near the northwestern corner of Ellis Square.

Besides being a long overdue tribute to the legendary songwriter, the ceremony will also mark the end of a project almost a year in the making for local sculptor Susie Chisholm.

Chisholm started with a 70-year-old photo of Mercer leaning against a fire hydrant in New York and reading a paper. She painstakingly transformed it into a three dimensional statue that would be cast into a mold, transported to a foundry in Utah, and then filled with 2000-degree molten bronze before being welded back together and dropped off at its new home near the forthcoming Ellis Square visitors kiosk.

The process of turning a historical person into a life-size monument is a long, complicated one that involves a lot of research, and this writer was chided for assuming that one might "make up" the wrinkles or drape of a figure's clothing.

"A lot of people don't understand sculpture," she explains. "You don't want to make up the wrinkles."

The intensive research for the Mercer sculpture was a far cry from a casual trip down Moon River or memory lane. In order to get a better feel for her subject as a person, she read biographies and spoke with family and friends.

"I hope to put some of the personality in the pieces," Chisholm says.

To accurately re-create the image from the selected photo, film producer and Mercer family friend Stratton Leopold sent a copy out to costume designers at Paramount Studios, where period specific items were made to match the clothes from the image, explains Chisholm.

Then, Steve Gerard, husband of Mercer's niece Nancy, modeled the items while being photographed from all sides and measured by Chisholm and her brother Daniel.

Not only did she have to measure everything from the length between buttons, but Chisholm also managed to track down an authentic, historically accurate New York City fire hydrant, which she was able to use during the modeling process, and which still sits in her studio.

Despite such extensive efforts, there was one change made while translating the image from two dimensions to three - rather than looking down to read the paper, Mercer is now looking up to greet passersby with a smile.

"We decided to make him have that persona," explains Chisholm. "That's how people remember him, with a big smile."
Chisholm, who also created the sculpture of the runner that graces the entrance to the Lake Mayer Park, is glad to have Mercer's statue so close to her City Market studio.

"I can keep tabs on him," she says with a smile. "I can walk that way and check on him."

While there's very little risk of Mercer's likeness walking away, the bronze statue will need some regular maintenance, including reapplying the protective patina that keeps the statue from getting spots or turning the surreal shade of green seen on many historical bronze sculptures that have been exposed to the elements.

Over the last decade, Chisholm has become a widely acclaimed sculptor - having just been accepted into the prestigious National Sculpture Society earlier this year - but her training was actually as a graphic designer, something she pursued actively for years, designing billboards and book jackets.

She didn't take up sculpting until her three children were older, and she found herself looking for a new pursuit - something that lead her to portrait sculpture class offered through the City's Leisure Services office.

Nowadays, she is working on large commissioned pieces - averaging about two life-sized sculptures per year - and with Mercer's statue back from the foundry, she is focusing on a statue of Charles Fraser, the first developer on Hilton Head Island, which will be unveiled at a new park outside Sea Pines in the spring of next year, and getting ready for the annual sculpture show that she helps organize during May of each year at the Green-Meldrim House.

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Patrick Rodgers

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Connect Today 12.11.2016

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