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Legacies Cast in Bronze

Statues of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass to stand in Maryland State House

      The intersection of public art and politics is a hard one to negotiate. Lots of traffic — history, symbolism, myth, ideals, politics and budgets — is moving in different directions.
      Consider the now well-known Washington, D.C., memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was authorized by Congress in 1996. The design competition held by the King Memorial Foundation attracted 906 entries. By the time the field was narrowed to 23 finalists, four impatient years had passed. The search for a sculptor led to China, and a lot of questions about why an American, especially an American of African heritage, was not selected. The King memorial was finally dedicated in 2011, 15 years after the initial authorization. 
      Let’s hope sculptures of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass won’t take so long. Approved by the Maryland Board of Public Works, these two iconic figures are scheduled to appear in bronze images in the Maryland State House a year hence, in February 2020. That’s four years after Maryland Senate President Thomas V. ‘Mike’ Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) initially proposed installing the statues. 
       This project unfolds during national discussions about who gets commemorated with public art. The issue is volatile because the images we make define who we think we are. According to Harvard professor John Stauffer, author of Picturing Frederick Douglass, “How we remember the past shapes the present and the future.” Try to remove one, and you see how right he is.
       Creating the statues will be ­StudioEIS in New York. Lead sculptor Ivan Schwartz was the artist for the George Washington statue in the old Senate chamber. 
      Like Washington, Tubman and Douglass were well known, so a large inventory of photos, literature and other statues of both exists to inform the sculptor’s job.
      Douglass is reputed to have been the most frequently photographed American in the 19th century, just beating Abraham Lincoln and George Armstrong Custer for that distinction. Early photos show Douglass as clean-shaven, with an especially stern and aggressive gaze. Later images illustrate a more serene senior statesman with a full beard. Douglass photographs always show him in relatively formal clothes, highlighting his status as a citizen.
       Tubman lived three lives after her escape from slavery, according to historian Milton C. Sernett. She assisted fugitive slaves, served as a scout and spy for the Union Army and looked after the social welfare of freed slaves after the Civil War. Most photographs were taken in her later years. Underground Railroad conductors ­didn’t want to be recognized. Nor did spies for the Union Army want their picture taken.
      Creation of these sculptures also will require decisions about clothing and posture, age and demeanor. 
      At this point we know only indirectly how these iconic figures will be portrayed because the Department of General Services is speaking for the sculptor.
      But their position is clear: Standing in the old House of Delegates chamber they will be overseeing the legislative debate about who gets to participate in our democracy.