Public Art

Feature: The Reactionary Dynamic In Public Art

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This article is an updated version of material originally published by Arts-Louisville.com in August 2017. Used with permission.

Entire contents copyright © 2017 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

“The word ‘deface’ derives from ancient Rome,” explains sculptor Matt Weir, “where the public would smash away the faces on images of leaders after they had been disgraced. Emperors would have statues of themselves everywhere, and if they were overthrown they were erased.”

In the aftermath of the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, Louisville joined other American communities in the struggle over public monuments honoring Confederate leaders when the statue of General John Breckinridge Castleman near the Cherokee Triangle was vandalized with bright orange paint. Within days Showing Up For Racial Justice organized a passionate but peaceful public demonstration at the location, and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer issued a statement directing the Commission on Public Art (COPA) to conduct a review of all public statues in the Metro area to determine what issues need to be addressed.

It seems a worthwhile and important response to community outcry, but in all of the press generated, there has been very little written about how artists feel about all of this, especially sculptors of public art who are today creating such monuments.

 Early iteration of Matt Weir’s statue of Colonel William Oldham. Photo by Keith Waits.

Early iteration of Matt Weir’s statue of Colonel William Oldham. Photo by Keith Waits.

Matt Weir is working to complete a commission for a historical statue in Oldham County that will commemorate Colonel William Oldham, a Revolutionary war figure for whom the county is named. The statue, which will be approximately seven feet tall, is to be installed in front of the LaGrange Library by July 2018. The uniformed figure is captured in a humble posture, rifle resting on his shoulder, and the horse’s bit and bridle dangling from his right hand is a nod to the tradition, missing here by deliberate choice, of showing military figures atop a stallion.

The weary, home-from-the-front attitude is a contrast to the heroic Castleman on horseback but reflects the common, everyman quality of the history. Weir states that Oldham has no significant military accomplishments of note, and he was killed in his early 30’s at The Battle of the Wabash, in which his unit was decimated by Native Americans onto whose land they had entered as part of a troop movement north. “There is a sense that he would have likely served as a public official if he had lived,” Weir says. “It’s unclear exactly how they came to name the county after him, but there is really no public sculpture in Oldham County, and Judge David Vogel (who commissioned the statue) wanted to change that, and this seemed like a good place to start.”

When asked about his feelings on the issue, and the Castleman statue in particular, Weir speaks in thoughtful terms that reflect his conflicted feelings: “Some of these pieces that are coming down in Baltimore and Durham, to my eye, looked like beautiful work; examples of important sculptural techniques, and, as an artist, I do feel sad they are disappearing. The Castleman statue is, I think, the only horse and rider statue in Louisville, and it’s a landmark that the neighborhood has used for a long time in its branding.” Weir shows me a cup from the Cherokee Triangle Art Fair showing the event logo that incorporates an image of the statue.

 Ed Hamilton at work in his studio. Photo by Sarah Katherine Davis/courtesy of LVA.

Ed Hamilton at work in his studio. Photo by Sarah Katherine Davis/courtesy of LVA.

Ed Hamilton has made his reputation as a sculptor of memorial statues, primarily recognizing African American History, and he echoes these thoughts in his own observations: “As an artist, we need to look at work, and I had studied the Castleman statue over the years because it is a gracious, artistically rendered piece. I didn’t even realize for a long time that it was a Confederate officer because he is not wearing a designated uniform. But now I need to rethink the underlying meaning of that statue.” Hamilton’s most recent work, a bust of Underground Railroad conductor George DeBaptiste, was for Madison, Indiana. Among his other monuments are The Spirit of Freedom, a memorial to black Civil War veterans that stands in Washington, DC,  as well as monuments dedicated to Booker T. Washington, Joe Louis, York (William Clark’s manservant on the Lewis and Clark Expedition), and the slaves who revolted on the Amistad.

 Ed Hamilton’s statue of York, who was part of the Lewis & Clark expedition.

Ed Hamilton’s statue of York, who was part of the Lewis & Clark expedition.

Hamilton was previously a member of COPA, and he says that the commission expected to follow the process that they took in making a recommendation on the statue at the University of Louisville that was relocated to Brandenburg Kentucky. A series of public meetings were scheduled and the first meeting was held in September, but soon Metro Government and COPA decided to develop a different approach, one which will attempt to establish a contextual foundation for approaching public art and the winds of change.

Sarah Lindgren, Public Art Administrator for Metro Government explained the shift in perspective: "We are working on our plans for a community conversation about race and the history of slavery—and how it impacts our world today. The topic of public art and monuments is just one component of a larger plan that Mayor Fischer will be discussing in the near future. The Commission on Public Art began a process of reviewing artwork and monuments in public spaces during a public meeting in September, and that process will continue along with the community conversation."

 COPA has set up a link for the public to provide comments here.

These kinds of public sculptures demand substantial research, often as a part of a proposal the artist submits before they even know if they have the job. “It is a job,” Weir tells me. ”I do personal work which reflects my particular aesthetic, and that that is very different from this sort of commission, but my name is on that statue forever, so I want to feel good about it. We don’t know exactly how long bronze lasts, but the oldest surviving bronze statue is thought to be 6000 years old.”

But would he take a commission for a statue honoring a Confederate figure? “For me, personally, no, I wouldn’t do it.”

Historically bronze statues are almost always tributes to individuals of power and influence. The cost of such projects means they are often driven by wealth and privilege, and the innumerable Confederate statues throughout the United States are inextricably tied to a campaign to reinforce Jim Crow laws across the American South in the years between 1890 and 1920, a period often referred to as “the nadir of race relations in America” by historians, so there should be no mystery about their original intention. More were erected in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s as a response to the Civil Rights Movement. “What’s happening now is reactionary,” claims Weir. “Just as the statues themselves were reactionary. Idolatry through figurative art has always been reactionary – always driven by the new regime.”

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When I ask him how he feels about the Durham statue being pulled down in the dark of night, he offers: “As a sculptor, that really hit home – what if that were MY work? I would rather see these changes occur through public dialogue. It’s an opportunity to heighten awareness of public art and the issues surrounding these Confederate monuments.”

“Whatever happens,” observes Weir, ”it seems like there is no win here.”


This Feature article was written by Keith Waits.
In addition to his work at the LVA, Keith is also the Managing Editor of a website, www.Arts-Louisville.com, which covers local visual arts, theatre, and music in Louisville.

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