On the west side of Wyman Dell Park, along Art Museum Drive, presides an impressive marble pedestal. Its usual luster, however, has been sullied by vandals who graffitied “Black Lives Matter”, “Smash White Supremacy”, “Terrorists” and “Remember Ceville”. Sitting atop is a heroic size bronze sculpture, known as the Lee and Jackson Monument It depicts General Robert E. Lee riding his horse, Traveller, and Stonewall Jackson following suit with Little Sorrel.
Madre Luz, a statue depicting a pregnant black woman, stands defiantly in its path. Wearing a rainbow sash her breasts and pregnant belly are exposed. Her skin color is uneven and the texture rough from the papier-mâché layered upon chickenwire. A child clings to her back as she holds her left arm raised high, fist clenched and adorned in gold glitter. Some call her Black Lady Liberty, while others refer to her as Lady Liberty of Black Power. To avoid potential conflict, using the events of Charlottesville as an excuse, in the dead of the night on August 16th the City of Baltimore removed four monuments steeped in American history and dumped them at an undisclosed lot.
The following day, hundreds of people gathered around the now vacant pedestal, eager to see the replacement for this vestige of American history. It takes almost a dozen people to support pregnant Madre Luz and her child.
Eventually she is placed upright on the pedestal. This pedestal was created by notable architect John Russel Pope, known for numerous designs such as the Jefferson Memorial.
His pension for Neoclassical designs did not sync with the aesthetic of Madre Luz.The sculptress of the Lee Jackson Memorial, Laura Gardin Fraser, had specifically requested his work. To replace only one and not both leaves the two items looking out of place.
For those who saw this monument as a symbol of slavery and racism, its removal represented a rejection of those values. One would assume that between the vandalism and forced removal, animosity would rise, but that remains to be seen. For those willing to view it as art and learn the American history behind it will be pleasantly surprised and rewarded.
Lara Gardin, daughter to John Emil and Alice Tilton Gardin, a well know artist herself, was born in 1889. Beginning at an early age Lara demonstrated great skill in working with clay and creating figurines. It was a talent she further developed under the guidance and support of her mother. Lara attended school in Rye, New York, followed by Wadleigh, and then the Horace Mann School in New York City which she graduated from in 1907. She also studied briefly at Columbia University before enrolling at the Art Students’ League where she studied for 4 years. During a period in history where approximately 60% of women graduated high school, but only 16% from college, she earned a scholarship as well as various honors. For the next 2 years Laura worked as an instructor under acclaimed artist James Fraser who would eventually become her husband. James and Lara never did have children as Lara chose to pursue her life’s passion all the while with her husband’s support.
Pablo Machioli, born in 1979, is from Uruguay. He illegally immigrated to America in 2003. As he stated in a 2015 interview with BMoreArt, being an illegal immigrant exposed him to two different types of racism that he had to overcome,
I have been experiencing racism since I came here. From being illegal, from police, from whites, blacks and Latinos. Being illegal, you feel another type of racism, people treat you like you are from another planet.
From 2003 to 2011 his jobs ranged from cleaning toilets, salsa dancing, being a children’s martial arts instructor, and a construction worker. While in construction he would use left over materials to practice sculpting, with those skills being showcased in Madre Luz. Being self taught, he began doing art projects, such as murals, in 2013.
In 2015, Pablo was approached by an activist friend named Owen Silverman Andrews. He had an idea to create a statue to protest the Lee and Jackson Monument. Owen’s initial idea was to create an image of Harriet Tubman throwing a brick. Pablo objected, finding the idea to be too violent. This was when he decided upon Madre Luz, Mother Light, who to him represented life.
After serving as a Captain for the Ambulance Service Motor Corps during World War I, Lara focused on sculpting coins. With sculpting being a field dominated by men she was a pioneer and trailblazer. She was able to achieve great success through her own merit. A major first being that Lara was the first woman to ever mint a US coin. Over the course of her career she created over 100 medals, countless coins, commemoratives, badges, reliefs, casts, busts, and sculptures. Work, that if left alone, could last for centuries.
Her most distinguished achievement was the Lee and Jackson Monument. It was historic for multiple reasons. In 1936 only 6 sculptors were invited to submit designs for this monument and Lara was the only woman. Her design defeated Lee Laurie, Paul Manship, Edward McCartan, and Hans Schuler. These sculptors were known for classics such as Atlas, Prometheus, and even the Virginia Monument at Gettysburg.
Art is open to interpretation. Sculptures are clearly art. To those who see racism and nothing more, I implore that you challenge yourself before resorting to reactionary measures. If you refuse to challenge yourself, all you will see is racism and in turn, all you will see is race. Obsessing over race will then lead to racism. Those who wanted the monuments removed saw a glorification of slavery, racism, oppression.
What I see is a sculpture created by a college educated woman who became famous in a field dominated by men. I see a WWI veteran. I see the first woman to ever create a coin for the US Mint. I see a woman with accolades that could fill a book.
You see racism, slavery, and oppression.
What about the Civil War? I see two men involved in a conflict that nearly tore our country apart. I also see two men fighting for state’s rights. I see two military strategists who have influenced how we fight today. I see a war that was fought by people who had no stake in slavery and lost their lives to preserve the Union and, of course, the Emancipation Proclamation. I see a country unified.
You see racism, slavery, and oppression, therefore, you had it removed.
To those who disagree with me I am certain you will say I read too much into these monuments. I, in turn, will say you read too little. Have you ever watched a movie more than once to better understand or appreciate it? How about a song? When you show someone a picture do you tell them the story behind it?
Anything that is representative of history is complex and layered, but easily accessible. The story it tells and the lessons learned from it can be incredible. The notion that a city would build multiple monuments with the intention of glorifying racism and slavery is absurd. You could have learned about Lara Gardin Fraser and her incredible achievements. You could have seen how our country has advanced and improved. To try and edit history is a clear path to ignorance. History cannot be changed, it can only be created.
So let me ask you, the reader, what do you see now?