Frederick Hightower has spent a lifetime sculpting his passions into works of art Hightower gazes upon his statue of Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician and subject of the 2016 film “Hidden Figures.” Hightower sculpted the bust of Johnson after viewing the film, and it resides at West Virginia State University, her alma mater.
Frederick Hightower didn’t know who Katherine Johnson was in 2016. “Hidden Figures,” starring Taraji P. Henderson as Johnson — a NASA mathematician whose contributions to early space exploration had largely been forgotten — was currently in theaters, but Hightower had not yet seen it.
The multi-disciplined artist who owns the Excellent Image Creation studio had been asked to make a sculpture of Johnson to be set outside her alma mater, West Virginia State University. After viewing the film, Hightower knew it was a project he needed to take on.
“If you saw the movie, you saw there was just a real genius about her,” Hightower said. “People were going to space with her mathematical routes, but nobody really knew about her at the time. And she graduated from WVSU.”
Johnson, who died in 2020 at age 101, was born in White Sulfur Springs, and is credited with helping get the first astronaut into orbit around the moon, and later the first moon landing. Johnson attended high school at age 10, and at 18 graduated from what was then West Virginia State College with degrees in mathematics and French.
The statue process took about a year — six months to sculpt from clay and another six months for a foundry to create the bronze bust.
“It was such a blessing to be able to honor the late Katherine Johnson — for the majority of her life she was pretty much unknown, and I just thought it was wonderful that they were able to make the movie that brought notoriety to her,” Hightower said.
Hightower was pleased that Johnson was still alive to see her recognitions acknowledged — including a 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.
“On her 100th birthday, we were able to unveil the statue and of course, the national media and everything was there,” Hightower said. “The greatest highlight was just seeing her be recognized, and to realize that I was able to help make that happen.”
Hightower said that people usually don’t get a statue — or any other sort of recognition — until after their death.
“I think that’s a little bit of a disappointment,” Hightower said. “I mean, if a person is renowned, particularly if they’re older, you know, why not? Why not celebrate them? If possible, let them see it.”
The Johnson sculpture helped Hightower realize that was where he wanted to focus his artistic endeavors. It’s one of many outlets for a man who has spent a lifetime harnessing his creative energies.
‘My dad was a pastor and my grandpa was a pastor’
Hightower does not look or sound like he is pushing 60. The 58-year-old was born in West Virginia and spent parts of his youth living in Virginia. He has been married for 34 years to his wife Michelle, and they have four children and three grandchildren. He currently lives in the Dunbar area, but his journey started in Madison, in Boone County.
“I grew up in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s and I had a real good childhood,” Hightower said. “Madison was a small town, everybody knew everybody.”
Religion was an important part of Hightower’s life growing up, and still is. He has been a preacher since his early 20s. It was a family tradition.
“My dad was a pastor and my grandpa was a pastor — we’re Baptist preachers — and I grew up around ministry and became a pastor myself,” Hightower said. “It’s kind of something that was passed down.”
After filling in once for a departing pastor in college, the calling became too great for Hightower to ignore. Hightower began his pastor work in earnest in 1988, and he oversaw the ALL Nations Revival Center, in Dunbar.
“From a personal conviction, I think anytime you can help people, it’s rewarding,” Hightower said. “They say that the number one source of peace you can have is helping other people. That definitely, for me, on a spiritual basis, I feel like it’s what God called me to do. He called me to the ministry so I answered the call. That’s probably the main reason that I minister — to just obey the call of the Lord.”
His two passions have been combined in the large mural on the wall of his church, which serves as a dramatic backdrop for his sermons.
“I just felt that the Lord wanted a big mural back there — I’m still working on it,” Hightower said. “After finishing one side, we’re about to finish the other, and then we’re wanting to go all the way around the church walls because it goes all the way around the sanctuary.”
The mural has been a work in progress for the last couple years.
Frederick Hightower stands at the pulpit of ALL Nations Revival Center, in Dunbar, in front of the religious mural he created.
“I will call it a giant illustration that tells a story, and that is the second coming of Christ,” Hightower said. “I don’t want to call it a puzzle, but it’s sort of a symbolic mystery, I guess — people say they see faces out there. It has sort of a mystical kind of vibe to it.”
‘I think that the African American legacy in this nation should be celebrated’
Hightower’s mother said that he could draw before he could talk.
The first time he remembers showing an artistic flair was a contest he won in the third grade for drawing a picture of Snoopy. It was in high school when he realized a career in art was something to pursue.
While he technically graduated from WVSU, the majority of his higher education came from Marshall University and Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond. His grandmother’s declining health prompted a move back to West Virginia from Richmond, and he hasn’t left.
His work in the church, coupled with getting married and raising a family led to his artistic endeavors being put on the back burner.
“I would say 2005 was when I decided to start doing artwork on a professional basis — I just felt like this was something that I had a degree in, and I hadn’t really utilized it, you know,” Hightower said. “I decided to pick it up and mess with it for a little bit, and it blossomed from there.”
Hightower started out in portrait painting, and within the last five years, things took a turn to where sculpting is his primary concentration. Aside from one beginner sculpting class in college, Hightower has no other formal training.
More sculpting works followed after Johnson, including Fanny Jackson Coppin, an early proponent for women’s rights who died in 1913, and Marshall basketball great Hal Greer, a member of the NBA Hall of Fame who died in 2018 and is considered one of the greatest players of the ‘60s.
While his major sculpting works feature historical Black figures, Hightower said that is not his intended goal — but the significance is not lost on him.
“I am a great history buff, as well as being an African American pastor of an African American church,” Hightower said. “I think that the African American legacy in this nation should be celebrated.”
Hightower has been pleased to see an increased public desire for recognition over the last two decades.
“It’s always been celebrated very much in the African American community, but in the community at large, I think it was not really emphasized particularly in the area of public sculpture,” Hightower said. “I would say in the last 20 years, that has changed quite a bit and I definitely feel like it’s a calling. I certainly hope in the future I can do other sculptures of whoever, regardless of what their ethnicity is — I’m not purposely trying to limit myself to just African American figures.”
‘You don’t have to be a millionaire or somebody rich to support the arts’
Hightower’s current project is a statue of world-renowned Grammy-award winning musician Bill Withers, a native son of Beckley. The singer of timeless classics such as “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lean on Me,” and “Just the Two of Us,” died in 2020 at 81.
“Bill Withers, he’s a national treasure, and he’s a treasure of the African American community — but his legacy and his music goes beyond the African American community,” Hightower said. “He is a treasure for the City of Beckley, seeing that that’s his hometown, and he is an icon of this state. It’s really important for us to recognize and celebrate for our children to show that their greatness and their talent can place them on the world stage.”
Larger than life bronze statues don’t come cheap, and a fundraising campaign is underway for the Withers homage. Hightower said those interested in donating can reach out to the City of Beckley directly, or inquire through his personal website at frederickhightowerfineart.com for more information.
“It is pretty much in a holding position, so to speak — the clay has been done, and the mold has pretty much been done, but we’re just waiting for the money to come in,” Hightower said.
For the Johnson statue, the average donation was $20, which Hightower said showed the importance of individuals believing in a project.
“You don’t have to be a millionaire or somebody rich to support the arts — no gift is too small,” Hightower said.
Hightower sees a bright future ahead of him, with works in varying stages of completion. He can also be reached for commissions, both paintings and smaller sculptures, with more information available on his website.
Marian Anderson, a barrier-breaking Black musician in the first half of the 20th century, is a potential project that has Hightower’s focus. He has submitted a sample to then turn into a larger work that, if selected, would be displayed in Anderson’s hometown of Philadelphia.
There is also much more to do in the Mountain State for Hightower, who has his eyes set on Charleston’s capitol grounds.
“We have one of the most beautiful capitol buildings in America, with the gold dome and such tremendous architecture,” Hightower said. “I would like to see an African American sculpture on those capitol grounds.”
John Henry, an American folk hero celebrated in song and literature, is Hightower’s choice for a Charleston-based statue. Henry is believed to have worked on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway’s Big Bend Tunnel, near Talcott in Summers County. Lore has it that Henry — known for his ability to hammer steel into rock to make way for explosives — died after beating a steam-powered rock-drilling machine in a competition.
A statue of Henry was unveiled in 1972 in Talcott, but Hightower would like to see an updated, higher-quality homage to an icon of the Wild and Wonderful.
“I think a brand new John Henry would be very good on the capitol grounds, and if anybody — politicians or community members — would like to help get behind that, let’s get in touch.”
Chris Slater is a journalist living in Morgantown, West Virginia. In 2016, he won 3rd place for “Best Breaking News Reporting,” which, along with a dollar, will get him a can of Coke. He has no children; it’s for the best.