Mount Pleasant’s resident chainsaw sculptor
Chris Cox didn’t set out to be famous.
“I was happy being a starving artist,” says the man who became an overnight folk hero of the government shutdown. You’ve probably seen the photo
: A rangy, bearded man with wild hair powering a lawnmower across the grass of the Lincoln Memorial in jeans and a red South Carolina shirt, a Palmetto State flag fluttering behind him.
Cox had been in the D.C. area because it’s the season for traveling artists like him to get on the road and sell his wares before winter. In the meantime he got sidetracked. When government ground to a halt Oct. 1 over a partisan fight about Obamacare, resulting in the closure of national parks and monuments, Cox put down the chainsaw. He hit up Home Depot for a gas-powered mower and leaf blower and started doing what furloughed federal workers couldn’t. For days he picked up trash, tidied up the memorials and cut the grass until police chased him off.
It seems only fitting that a South Carolina personality has become the defiant face of a government shutdown. The state has a long history of tangling with the feds and sending populist figures to Washington who become legends. Today Cox enters that tradition, the grizzly face of rugged American self-reliance, taking care of business in torn jeans and a sweaty shirt. Joe the Plumber, meet the one-man Memorial Militia.
“I didn’t sign up for that, I was just out there — it was a reaction,” he told the City Paper over the phone about his sudden fame. “I saw an opportunity to help so I jumped on it. I guess that’s the only reason that I’m getting this attention.”
At least one of his hometown lawmakers in the capitol, U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, has his back.
Last Thursday, Cox showed up at Sanford’s Washington office after the Republican congressman delivered a floor speech lamenting the unprecedented closure of the Lincoln Memorial. In an e-mail, Sanford said Cox voiced a similar concern to him. Later, on a morning run near the memorial, Sanford spotted a citizen mowing the grass with a South Carolina flag hanging from the back of the mower. It was Cox.
“He saw a job that wasn’t getting done and decided to take care of it,” Sanford said. “We are not a nanny state, and when government in this case chooses not to do something it’s in keeping with the American tradition to ask, ‘What can I do to fix the problem?’”
Photos of the mystery lawnmower man have gone viral online. By this morning he was a hero with a full voicemail box. After TV hits the studios of MSNBC and Fox News, he says he received 300 emails.
Asked why he brought the state flag into the mix, he says he represents South Carolina wherever he goes.
“It made sense to me to carry my flag,” he says. “You figure the government shutdown — it was like they suspended the American flag, but not really. I thought it was a good opportunity to represent my state and teach my nieces and my nephews that they, too, could play a role in history. All you have to do is be passionate about something and go after it and speak your voice and try to be heard.”
Cox isn’t apolitical. He’s worked for Dan Quayle and Colin Powell. In 2000, he was Elizabeth Dole’s presidential campaign coordinator in Vermont, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, he says. But he’s not taking sides in the debate over why the government closed or who’s to blame.
“I think they need to get their act together, man,” he says. “I’m not here to point fingers. I was concerned about the memorials.”
A full-time chainsaw artist, he kind of feels like he’s been furloughed, too, spending the last couple days out there hustling around the monuments and not selling art.
“I haven’t been to work since October 1 out here messing with these guys,” he says. “I need to get back to work. I didn’t become an artist for the love of money. I became an artist because I love chasing my imagination … I’ll stay out there as long as I can, but reality will set in, bills will start to come in the mail and I might have to get back to what it is I do to make a living.”
Back in South Carolina, Republican Sen. Harvey Peeler of Gaffney suggested on Twitter that if Cox were to start a lawn care business back home he could probably make a fortune.
“I’ve got a business,” Cox laughs. “I’m not into lawn care, but I’ll do whatever it takes to get my point across.”
Cox would love to talk more, but he has another call.
“I don’t mean to be rude,” he says as he hangs up to talk to The Associated Press.