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Kennedy statue in clay sits in Fresno yard, exposed to the elements

This clay study for a statue of John F. Kennedy by famed Fresno artist Varaz Samuelian sits in the side yard of a house on San Benito Street in downtown Fresno. Samuelian admired Kennedy and carved the likeness in 1964. It stands near the enormous concrete study he made for his famed statue of Armenian folk hero David of Sassoon.
This clay study for a statue of John F. Kennedy by famed Fresno artist Varaz Samuelian sits in the side yard of a house on San Benito Street in downtown Fresno. Samuelian admired Kennedy and carved the likeness in 1964. It stands near the enormous concrete study he made for his famed statue of Armenian folk hero David of Sassoon. The Fresno Bee

Q: I have been told there are two large statues of John F. Kennedy that are not being maintained. One is in downtown Fresno. Do you know where the other one is?

Carole Laval, Fresno

A: According to Lilia Chavez, executive director of the Fresno Arts Council, there is only one statue of John F. Kennedy on public view in Fresno, a study done by late artist and sculptor Varaz Samuelian in the yard of a house on San Benito Street near Highway 41 downtown.

However, Samuelian once said he had created a smaller bust of the late president the year after Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

varaz samuelian
Varaz Samuelian The Fresno Bee

Samuelian’s 16-foot, 18-ton clay sculpture of a standing Kennedy, possibly a study for a statue, stands near the enormous concrete study he made for his famed statue of Armenian folk hero David of Sassoon.

Asked why he made the Kennedy statue, Samuelian told The Bee in 1964, “It seemed like a good thing to do. When the president was killed, I felt so bad. He was such a good man. I think, ‘What can I do?’”

So Samuelian did what comes naturally to artists, the story said. “He sketched Kennedy, he made paintings of Kennedy and then he sculpted a bust of the late president.”

None of those works were big enough or “grand enough to express the strength of (Kennedy) nor the extent of Samuelian’s sorrow,” the story said.

Samuelian made the larger statue in the yard of his studio, but wasn’t certain what would become of it. “Clay cannot last,” he told The Bee. “He shouldn’t stay here.” However, the Kennedy statue was never commissioned or purchased, Chavez said.

Samuelian, who was born in Armenia, came to Fresno in 1957. By his own count, he created about 1,000 works of art, including three pieces of public art in Fresno: the 18-foot copper statue of David of Sassoon next to the Fresno County Hall of Records, a bronze bust of his long-time friend William Saroyan at the Fresno Convention Center and a copper relief of an officer’s face for the monument to fallen officers at Fresno Police Department headquarters.

Samuelian was also a painter. He was a short man, but created large, vivid, often ferocious canvases and murals. In a 1973 Bee story about an exhibit of his works at Fresno State, Samuelian said it didn’t bother him if his artworks didn’t sell. “You don’t work just so people see it, or buy it,” he said. “That’s the inside you have to express. You don’t care about it, work is what I have to do.”

Samuelian died in 1995 at 78.

Q: I have been researching the family of John Albert Poytress who came to Fresno in 1891, settled in the Washington Colony in the Easton area and donated the land for Washington Union High School. I believe he was enticed to come to Fresno by advertisements in English newspapers. Where can I find copies of such advertisements?

Terry Gardner, Clovis

A: In 1878 Wendell Easton of San Francisco – for whom Easton would be named – and a partner purchased 11 sections of land they called the Washington Irrigated Colony, according to the book “Fresno County in the Pioneer Years.”

“Easton went to Germany, Austria and Sweden to persuade potential settlers,” the book said, but found no buyers. He spent $25,000 on advertising – millions in today’s dollars. The advertising ran in several papers in the West during the early 1880s, including in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Reno, but he still found no takers.

Easton twice chartered trains from San Francisco to bring potential buyers to the area, eventually selling 385 lots, accounting for five of the original sections. For $700 each buyer got 22 acres of land and a 75-foot lot in the fledgling town, which was first named for the colony’s superintendent, A.T. Covell.

Local historian Paul Vandor wrote that John A. Poytress, born in Gloucester, England, in 1871, “read of the wonders of California and was attracted by the opportunities that awaited young men without capital but willing to work.” It’s not clear if Easton’s advertisements ran in English newspapers and Vandor doesn’t specify where Poytress read about California.

But advertisements for California farm land nearly promised more than they could deliver. One typical advertisement of the day for a Fresno area colony is in the book “Vintage Fresno.” The ad touted “soil, climate and water facilities” that were “unequaled,” that would produce “two crops a year – no failure in crops!”

According to Vandor, Poytress eventually owned three ranches. He had a vineyard for Thompson seedless and Muscat raisins and peach and apricot orchards on the home ranch near West and Lincoln avenues. He grew alfalfa and had a herd of Holsteins on his 320-acre ranch southeast of his homestead and a 60-acre ranch in the Caruthers area.

Poytress was a director of the Fresno County YMCA for 25 years, a charter member of the Sun-Maid Raisin Growers Association, a director of the Danish Creamery Association and served on the boards of the Washington Union High School and American Colony School for more than 20 years. He died in 1940 at 68.

Ask Me publishes on the second and fourth Sundays of each month. Paula Lloyd is a freelance writer. Send questions to askpaulalloyd@yahoo.com or by mail to Paula Lloyd, c/o The Fresno Bee Newsroom, 1626 E St., Fresno CA 93786. Please include your name, city of residence and a phone number.

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