January 23 – May 31, 2009
Main Library Art Gallery
One of my favorite places is the Cluny Museum in Paris. Inside are displayed the heads of the kinds of France which were broken off the facade of Notre Dame during the French Revolution and rediscovered during the 1970s. These larger-than-life stone heads are so beautiful and are displayed in such an ethereal setting that they continue to affect me now, years after I first encountered them.
I wanted to create something myself which would have a similar effect and presence. I am not interested in mythological subject matter, but instead, real people whose art succeeded despite obstacles. I began to compile a list of personal artist role models.
These are the first of five on an ongoing series of colossal portrait heads, which I call Cultural Heroes. I experimented with various ways of handling the material (clay), always with the intent to make the material and its treatment at least as important as the subject matter.
The five people currently represented in the sculptures so far are Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Leadbelly, Paul Robeson, and Woody Guthrie. A new portrait will be unveiled at a reception on February 19.
Described by the famous conductor Arturo Toscanini as having a voice “that comes once in a hundred years,” contralto Marian Anderson was also affected by racism. In 1939, after a performance in Washington D.C.’s Constitution Hall was cancelled because she was black, she was invited to sing at the Lincoln Memorial, where she performed for over 75,000 people.
Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Bessie Smith began as a street performer and became one of the most successful vaudeville artists of the 1920s. Her recordings have had a tremendous influence on many blues and jazz artists.
One of the greatest jazz vocalists of the twentieth century, Billie Holiday faced many hardships throughout her life. She was one of the first black female singers to work with a white orchestra and to perform at Carnegie Hall.
Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly, was a musical virtuoso, a dynamic performer, and a prolific song writer. While in prison in Louisiana he was "discovered" by John and Alan Lomax who recorded him for the Library of Congress. His vast songbook has remained an important resource and inspiration for many subsequent artists.
Despite the racism he fought throughout his life, Paul Robeson was a successful scholar, athlete, singer, actor, and social activist. His courage fighting against bigotry and inequality was an example for the civil rights activists of the 1960s.
A prolific writer and performer, Woody Guthrie was a folk singer who transformed the ballad into a vehicle for social protest. He traveled the country during the Depression singing and writing about the hardships endured by poor people and migrant workers.