Originally created 02/07/98

Artist makes his art come to life in park



CARTHAGE, Mo. -- He knew as early as kindergarten, Sam Butcher says, that he would be an artist.

But ask him how he hit upon his greatest enterprise, the theme park that he calls his personal tribute to God, and the creator of the Precious Moments figurines struggles for words.

The complex just off Interstate 71 in Carthage, Mo., more or less just came to be, he says -- a religious vision that became a shrine plus restaurants, fountain, chapel, and a honeymoon island in a man-made lake.

"It is amazing what's happened," he said over coffee one recent morning in the large, crowded dining room of one of the restaurants.

With its sprawling parking lot, RV park, spiffy-looking attractions and 750,000 visitors a year, Precious Moments is the multimillion dollar spinoff of the beautifully crafted porcelain figurines that Mr. Butcher has designed over the years.

It's rarely uncrowded, but there is a particular buzz in the air this morning. For in a few minutes, Mr. Butcher will sit down and begin to sign hundreds of figurines.

People from all over the country, some of whom own 500 or more of them, will wait patiently throughout the day for a chance to chat briefly with him while he puts his name across the bottom of one particularly treasured piece from their collection.

"I just don't want this to turn into a circus atmosphere," he said quietly amid the tumult. "I want the whole experience, the atmosphere we have here, to be apart from those things. I want a more inspirational setting."

After all, he said, it was divine inspiration that created Precious Moments.

It was 1984, and his line of gift figurines, with their wise-looking children and their inspirational sayings, were being snapped up by collectors around the world.

But Mr. Butcher wanted something more -- a place where people could go to be inspired, and to see Precious Moments as more than just a gift line.

"I rented a car in Utah and just started driving," he recalled. "I prayed and asked the Lord to direct me."

He finally stopped, exhausted, on the outskirts of Carthage, a little Midwest town of churches and turn-of-the-century Victorian mansions. He saw some 3,000 acres of farmland and decided it was the place.

Here, over the years, he has built a hotel, chapel, restaurant, deli, gift shop, RV park, art gallery, and the two newest and most spectacular attractions, the Fountain of Angels amphitheater and Honeymoon Island.

It's the largest show fountain in the world, promotions manager Ted Easley said proudly, with more than 250 bronze-cast angels created by Mr. Butcher, thousands of lights, and 16,000 gallons of water a minute gushing 70 feet into the air.

Honeymoon Island sits in the middle of a 40-acre man-made lake and has a century-old church and mansion restored by Mr. Butcher. Couples come here from around the world to wed and honeymoon.

The fountain has an admission fee. The chapel and the art gallery are free.

But despite the hubbub and the constant traffic of tour buses, there is a palpable feeling of serenity.

"It gives you a good feeling when you come up here," said Deann Eastirn, of Tulsa, Okla., who belongs to a club of Precious Moments collectors.

Soon after her daughter died, Mrs. Eastirn said, she found comfort in a Mr. Butcher figurine of a child with a sign saying there are no tears in heaven.

As Mr. Butcher sipped coffee, admirers streamed by to shake hands, embrace him or offer a small gift.

"I've got rooms full of things people have given me, but I can't say no," he whispered, sounding a bit embarrassed, after accepting yet another keepsake.

His gifts and art collection have all but filled his mansion on the Precious Moments property, and when he's there he lives in just one room off his studio.

His six surviving children are grown. His divorce from his wife still seems painful to him.

"Fame is hard on families," he said quietly. "You come from a background where nothing in particular is happening to you, you're just going to work every day, and then there you are in this public arena. ... And we just weren't prepared for that."

He grew up in what he calls a dysfunctional family, and lived a life that included, he said sheepishly, "cussing a blue streak."

He worked as a janitor, short-order cook and illustrator, while sketching inspirational cards for friends and family.

After Precious Moments became ubiquitous in gift shops in the late 1970s, he dreamed of building a chapel, and it finally opened on the Precious Moments grounds in 1989.

Mr. Butcher, who turned 59 on New Year's Day, still works at the chapel, adding artistic touches here and there. He said his work there will never be done.



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