Visitors to Tullahoma who loop around behind the CSX railroad tracks may be surprised to find a troupe of statutes staring stone-faced back at them. The original Moai figures the Tullahoma sculptures emulate were made famous by the isolated Polynesian settlement on Easter Island, and their origins remain a mystery to this day. One Tennessee artist found them so intriguing he wanted to bring that magic to Tullahoma by creating his own replicas of the Moai statues.
Photo: Odinn Media
How the artist got his start
Steve Smith has been creating art and working with his hands for most of his life. Smith’s main specialty is vehicle mainframes and collision repair, and once he struck out on his own a number of years ago, it was a natural fit to begin working on aircraft at Tullahoma Municipal Airport with an aviation repair subcontractor.
Using that mechanical know-how to assemble his sculptures, Smith started with smaller pieces for a landscaping company in Manchester before scaling up with two large sculptures that originally lived at the Hands-On Science Center along Highway 55. When the structures were knocked over by vandals on multiple occasions, he relocated them to the strip of land in front of his property.
Drawing inspiration from the supernatural
Smith’s artistic motivations lie in supernatural and mythical figures from ancient history. The elongated faces and girthy, 10-ton lava rock sculptures on the remote Easter Islands some 2,000 miles off the coast of Chile have mystified maritime explorers since they first discovered them in the 1700s.
Visitors to Tullahoma can experience a dose of the magic by stopping at 103 Marbury Road where the six scaled replicas—including a kid-friendly version that allows children to be a part of the artwork by sticking their face through the moai—reside. Smith’s Moai statues are free to visit and open to the public, and the artist even installed parking spaces to make the art more accessible to all.
What’s up next for Smith
Smith has two forthcoming projects he is interested in pursuing alongside the railroad: a replica of Stonehenge, a 5,000-year-old prehistoric monument in England, and a large-scale, three-dimensional representation of the Inca god Viracocha, the foremost deity of the Peruvian people at the time of European conquest in the 1500s.
“They think he was some kind of space traveler that came down in a craft over in Peru and arose out of Lake Titicaca,” Smith says.
Legends and oral history that were documented by early Christian historians reinforce the notion that Viracocha was a foundational religious figure within early South American societies in that part of the world, and the existing statues in Peru of Viracocha lend themselves well to Smith’s style of creativity, with a stout, reinforced column of carved surfaces being the main part of the structure.
“I think people would really like [a statue of Viracocha] because it’s interesting,” says Smith.
Aviation enthusiasts might recognize the airplane that Smith works on and also copilots. The T-33A Red Knight has been featured in many airshows across the country and is a jet trainer aircraft created in the late-1940’s.