E. Spencer Schubert didn't realize that an innocuous photo that he posted to his website would be news. But it was. On May 8, Schubert was hauling, in his beat-up Dodge pickup, the bronze busts that he had sculpted of former slave Dred Scott and of controversial radio host Rush Limbaugh, for upcoming inductions into the Hall of Famous Missourians at the state Capitol.
Schubert, 34, had snapped a photo of a truck hauling a fighter jet's fuselage and added a caption joking that between the busts and the jet, there was strange cargo on Missouri's highways.
"I thought I was taking what was a pretty interesting photograph, and the commentary was secondary," Schubert says. "I'm driving a couple of bronze heads to the Capitol, and this guy is driving the front of a jet."
The next day, representatives for Missouri House Speaker Steven Tilley (R-Perryville), called Schubert and asked him to remove the post. Tilley's staff complained that several reporters were demanding to know the whereabouts of Limbaugh's bronze likeness. (The bust was hidden in a basement with office furniture.)
Schubert removed the post.
"I just didn't think that people were following me on my website or that they were waiting for news. But apparently they were," Schubert says. "I think there's 160 people that like my Facebook page, and there's four people who follow my blog. You know, nobody cares usually."
The Jefferson City press corps cared. St. Louis Public Radio KWMU 90.7 and Kansas City's KCUR 89.3 posted reports that included screen grabs of Schubert's website. Tilley dodged reporters' questions, claiming that he didn't know when Limbaugh's likeness would be unveiled.
"I haven't had a chance to visit with him [Schubert], but I do know we're inducting Dred Scott," Tilley told reporters. "We don't even have a date on Rush Limbaugh yet."
Tilley had made the controversial decision to induct Limbaugh into the Hall of Famous Missourians. The speaker alone decides whom to induct, and the Speaker's Annual Golf Classic raises money to pay for the busts. Honorees, for the most part, are dead and admired by Missourians (they include Harry S. Truman, Walt Disney, Mark Twain and Lamar Hunt). In addition to Limbaugh and Scott, this year Schubert sculpted a bust of Negro Leagues legend Buck O'Neil.
Schubert, a sculptor based in Kansas City's Crossroads District, announced on his website in February that he would be sculpting a bust of Limbaugh for the Hall of Famous Missourians. Under photos of Scott and Limbaugh, Schubert wrote: "What do these two guys have in common you ask? Well, turns out they are both in the process of being sculpted by E. Spencer Schubert for the Hall of Famous Missourians at the State Capital [sic]!"
No one noticed. Then, in late February, Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke testified before a U.S. House committee in favor of insurance companies covering contraception. Limbaugh spent days verbally abusing Fluke on his radio program; he called her a "slut" and a "prostitute," and he demanded that she release sex tapes.
In the fallout of his comments about Fluke, Limbaugh's radio show lost dozens of sponsors. Limbaugh deigned to issue an on-air apology. However, Tilley was unrelenting. Defending his decision to induct Limbaugh, Tilley said: "It's not the 'Hall of Universally Loved Missourians.' "
By March, El Rushbo was in a media tailspin. Around the same time, the Leopold Gallery, in Brookside, announced that it would sell casts of the Limbaugh bust. In a press release, Schubert said he was proud to have been selected to sculpt Limbaugh.
"As a sculptor, I decided long ago that the criteria for accepting commissions would be whether or not they are artistically interesting," Schubert said in the statement. "If it were left to sculptors to choose who was honored with portraits, the entire history of portraiture would look dramatically different."
Until the Limbaugh bust, Schubert was known for making haunting metal statues with bright-white glass eyes. The trim man with sandy-colored hair and a smile that frequently spans his face had hoped that his statement would explain his motivation for crafting the Limbaugh bust and that he wasn't a dittohead. But news accounts didn't dig very deep.
"Sure as shit, as soon as people read it [the statement] and ran stories, the nuance was stripped out," Schubert says.
The Huffington Post published a piece called "Rush Limbaugh Bust Sculptor E. Spencer Schubert Speaks Out." The Washington Post's Style Blog leapt onto the story with "Rush Limbaugh sculpture: Available for purchase!"
In an opinion piece on CNN's website, author Ron Powers wrote: "The sculptor Schubert is quoted as saying that 'I take my responsibility very seriously,' abstaining from the chance to expand on his concept of 'responsibility.' He added that his criteria for accepting commissions was 'whether or not they are artistically interesting.' This pre-empts any discussion of art as a moral (or amoral) force, and also begs the question of how 'artistically interesting' is the Limbaughian countenance."
Rather than further explain his reasoning, Schubert shut up.
Two days after the busts were delivered, Schubert returned to the Capitol for the Dred Scott unveiling. Schubert met with Scott's descendants and representatives from the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation.
"They liked the way it looks, and they were really appreciative," he says. "I got to talk to the family about how I felt about the pose, why I posed him this way. It was really nice."
However, Statehouse reporters wanted to press Schubert about the whereabouts of the Limbaugh bust.
"It would have been totally inappropriate to talk about that on Dred Scott's day," Schubert says.
Five days later, at 9 a.m., Schubert received a phone call from Tilley's office.
"They called and said, 'Get a suit on and get to the Capitol,' " he says. "So I did as I was told."
This time, Schubert kept his agenda to himself.
Schubert arrived at the Missouri Statehouse just before the 1 p.m. ceremony May 14. Tilley's aides led him into the speaker's office to meet Limbaugh, whose appearance wasn't publicized ahead of time.
"He was nice, respectful and outgoing, like you would imagine," Schubert says. "People are people.
"He gave me a very nice compliment," Schubert adds. "He said he liked the bust, he thought it was excellent, and he thought it was better work than the busts in the [Pro Football] Hall of Fame."
No one has criticized the craftsmanship of the Limbaugh bust, which is quite flattering. Sculpted at one-and-a-half life size — what Schubert calls "heroic scale" — the bronze bust carries a gentle, benevolent grin and a generous amount of hair.
"I may have given him a half-inch on the peak," Schubert jokes.
Above Limbaugh's collared shirt — no tie — his chin is relatively trim, lacking the jowls that have appeared and disappeared over his lifetime.
"I didn't decide an age to sculpt him at. Rush was really tough because he, like most of us, has gone through some pretty dramatic changes in his life," Schubert says. "The 40-year-old Rush looks a lot different than the 50-year-old Rush, especially when you take weight into consideration."
Schubert says he had no interest in working his political beliefs or Limbaugh's into the face.
"I wanted to sculpt a portrait of Rush that if you walked up to it, you would see the man you expect to see," he explains.
After the grip-and-grin with Limbaugh, Schubert was ushered into the House Chamber. While the unveilings of busts for Dred Scott and Buck O'Neil had packed the chamber, Schubert was surprised by the lack of people present for this one. Schubert says he became even more suspicious when his friends who are Democrats in the Legislature, including outgoing House Minority Leader Mike Talboy, didn't get in touch with him. He figured that they must have been out of the loop.
His suspicions were correct. The invitation-only ceremony was announced 20 minutes prior to its taking place. Every previous induction had been open to the public. Most of the people in the chamber were Republican lawmakers and Limbaugh's relatives. News reports said there was heavy security, although Schubert says he didn't see any guards. The secret nature of the ceremony, however, made him uneasy.
"On one hand, it's the people's House, and it should be open. On the other hand, I can understand where Speaker Tilley was coming from," Schubert says. "There were a lot of Limbaughs there. It would have been embarrassing if someone had done something gross — meaning, potentially throwing a pie in great-aunt Limbaugh's face or something."
Limbaugh spoke for about 12 minutes. Most of his comments were about the support his family had given him despite his choice to skip college and go into the radio business.
"In many families, someone like me would have been discarded because he was an embarrassment," he told the assembled Republicans and relatives.
Limbaugh also praised Tilley for standing behind him in spite of the criticism.
"The speaker's office and people in his office and the speaker himself have been under assault for wanting to do this. And, believe me, it's easy to say, 'You know what, Rush, we're better off trying this some other year,' " Limbaugh said. "He didn't do that. He hung in. It was tough. He did not give them any quarter."
Then, almost as if he were having an anaphylactic reaction to the decorum, he closed with a few parting shots at the Democrats' empty side of the chamber.
"[Tilley] laughed at them when they called his office, which is what you have to do because they're deranged," Limbaugh said. "They're literally deranged, our friends, so-called friends, on the other side of the aisle are deranged."
Schubert recalls the controversial last several months in his sunlit corner studio in the Arts Incubator on West 18th Street in the Crossroads. He says he's ready to move beyond his Limbaugh bust. The bright room reflects his disposition, which hasn't soured despite receiving 700 e-mails attacking him for sculpting the bust. Simon, Schubert's rambunctious black Lab, oscillates between sunning himself in the corner and silently urging Schubert to pet him.
"I have looked at this whole thing with a bemused 'wow,' " he says. But he expresses regret for the personal attacks lodged against his wife, Ryann, and his 2-year-old daughter, Ruby.
"I got 20 vile, vile, despicable e-mails, many of which said things about my wife and daughter," Schubert says, his tone briefly turning angry. "I can't even imagine what kind of mind it takes to express their outrage about a person who said nasty things about a woman by saying nasty things about other women. That's the most ridiculous thing in the entire world."
Paul Dorrell, the president of the Leopold Gallery, which represents Schubert, calls the fallout over the Limbaugh bust and the ensuing rage directed at Schubert "a bloody fiasco."
"It's not like he made a sculpture of Hitler," Dorrell says. "People will realize that he was just doing a commission the same way he was for Buck and Dred."
In late May, the Limbaugh bust managed one last media gasp. House officials announced that a security camera would be installed and focused on Limbaugh's bust, which is now displayed across from Warren Hearnes, the state's 46th governor, and next to George Caleb Bingham, a 19th-century frontier painter. Taxpayer cost: $1,100.
Trevor Fox, Missouri House communications director, tells The Pitch that in his 16 years working at the Capitol, he has never heard of a bust being defaced or damaged. So is there fear that the Limbaugh bust would be defaced by angry citizens?
"Obviously, you could extrapolate that," he says.
For his next project, Schubert is getting away from the polarizing Limbaugh and back to a universally loved figure: Buck O'Neil.
Schubert wants to make miniature versions of his O'Neil bust with the proceeds going to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
"The plan would be to ask for donations of a certain dollar amount that hasn't been decided yet," Schubert says. "As a thank-you for that, you get a limited-edition maquette."
Schubert's goal is to raise $200,000 for the museum through events likely connected to Major League Baseball's All-Star Game, which takes place July 10 at Kauffman Stadium, and celebrations on what would have been O'Neil's 101st birthday November 13.
Bob Kendrick, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president, says the museum is working on getting authorization from O'Neil's estate to use the baseball great's likeness.
"We're excited about the opportunity," Kendrick says. "It beautifully captures that charisma of Buck: the big smile, the bright eyes. All of that comes across in Spencer's work."
All of which went unnoticed in the Limbaugh sculpture.