Slovenians debate chainsaw-carved statue of Melania Trump in her hometown

The first lady has a statue in her honor, but it's not exactly getting raves.

July 07, 2019, 6:13 AM

There's a debate raging in Sevnica, Slovenia, the hometown of America's first lady, Melania Trump. Is a newly unveiled statue of Trump a tribute -- or the work of a troublemaker?

There's little local debate over Trump: She's almost unanimously viewed as a symbol of pride, a local girl who made good. But the sculpture of Trump, recently unveiled along a river just a few miles outside of town, ostensibly in honor of the former model, is being criticized by some as not-so-gentle ridicule.

The life-size statue, fashioned by local folk artist Aleš "Maxi" Župevc, was carved with a chainsaw, from a living linden tree. It shows Melania Trump in a rough-hewn approximation of the pale-blue Ralph Lauren coat she wore at the inauguration of her husband, President Donald Trump, in January 2017.

For Sevnica, a tiny industrial town with 5,000 inhabitants, Trump's likeness is the latest acknowledgement that the local girl's fame has become a tourist attraction, luring many Americans and other foreign visitors to the quiet, mostly rural area in the eastern part of the central European country.

PHOTO: In this Friday, July 5, 2019 photo, a sculpture created by American artist Brad Downey depicting Melania Trump is seen in her hometown in Sevnica, Slovenia.
In this Friday, July 5, 2019 photo, a sculpture created by American artist Brad Downey depicting Melania Trump is seen in her hometown in Sevnica, Slovenia. A life-size sculpture of the U.S. first lady has been unveiled in her hometown of Sevnica, drawing mixed reactions from the locals.
AP Photo/Miro Majcen

The wooden statue unveiled Friday features a blocky likeness of Trump, her facial features sketched in cartoonish lines. The 3 1/2-meter monument rises from an ivy-laced tree stump along the banks of the Sava River, with her left arm raised as if waving toward the first lady’s hometown upstream.

The statue was commissioned by 39-year-old Brad Downey, a Kentucky-born artist, based in Berlin for almost two decades. The artist, who goes by Maxi, is an amateur chainsaw sculptor and professional pipe layer. He was born the same month of the same year as the first lady, in the same hospital in the nearby town of Novo Mesto.

But the two have taken hugely different life paths. Downey provided Maxi with a life-size photo of Trump and left the rest to him.

"I don't know her personally, but she's my age," Maxi says in a documentary film Downey directed, which was shot while the sculpture was in the making and is part of his exhibition, "This Echo," at a gallery in Slovenia’s elegant capital, Ljubljana.

"I wanted to do an artistic investigation of Mrs. Trump through her native region," Downey explains. "And I wanted a self-taught local artist whose work followed the folk tradition."

PHOTO: A wooden sculpture of first lady Melania Trump is officially unveiled in Rozno, near her hometown of Sevnica, Slovenia, July 5, 2019.
A wooden sculpture of first lady Melania Trump is officially unveiled in Rozno, near her hometown of Sevnica, Slovenia, July 5, 2019.
Borut Zivulovic/Reuters
PHOTO: In this Jan. 20, 2017 file photo, President Donald Trump waves as he walks with first lady Melania Trump during the inauguration parade on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.
In this Jan. 20, 2017 file photo, President Donald Trump waves as he walks with first lady Melania Trump during the inauguration parade on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool

Downey admits his concept is also somewhat political.

"I was inspired to do something about this anti-immigration narrative coming from Donald Trump," he told ABC News by phone. "It is a blatant contradiction to have a president, who is married to a [legal] immigrant, make stopping immigration a cornerstone of his presidency."

For the folk artist, the work is more personal.

"She might come and see the thing. She might like it," Župevc says.

"Let's face it," he adds, "she owns half of America, while I have nothing."

PHOTO: The first ever monument of Melania Trump, set in the fields near town of Sevnica, July 5, 2019.
The first ever monument of Melania Trump, set in the fields near town of Sevnica, July 5, 2019.
Jure Makovec/AFP/Getty Images

Although the Trump statue has received some positive feedback on Instagram, local residents have mixed opinions.

"It’s really a cultural shock for us," Mirjana Jelancic, a Sevnica school principal and a close childhood friend of Melania Trump, told ABC News, refusing to elaborate further.

"Why did he have to make her look like an evil stepmother of Pinocchio?" asked Blaž Berginc, a Sevnica pensioner. "What a disgrace!"

But Downey insists, "Most local people were very supportive of the statue. Some even promised to take good care of it."

"She is our beauty, no matter what, even here. She looks like she just walked out of a beautiful naïve painting," Mojca Platnar told ABC News. And besides, says another neighbor, Janez Hočevar, "It’s a fun new tourist attraction."

Melania Trump's husband can relate to building those.

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