Illustration by Tim Cooke
Another year, another RVA statue controversy.
This time, Richmond is stuck in cement over a statue of pioneering African-American educator and banker Maggie L. Walker. A proposal to erect a statue of Walker at Adams and Broad streets hit a snag in January, in part, because a 26-year-old oak tree resides at that triangle.
More than 200 people showed up for a public hearing to fuss and argue over whether a tree younger than Lady GaGa should be cut down to make way for a monument honoring arguably Richmond’s most important resident.
Classic Richmond — incorporating everything that is wrong with us in one tidy controversy. It involves a statue (naturally), following in the great tradition of public outrage over Arthur Ashe, Abraham Lincoln, Confederate generals and on and on. But it also incorporates our very Richmond inability to build anything. We built a performing arts center by the skin of our teeth. We can’t build a children’s hospital. Oh, and baseball stadiums? We specialize in not being able to build those.
But, there yet may be a solution for RVA’s, um, bronzetipation. Richmond magazine has obtained a still-unreleased proposal by an up-and-coming local sculptor, who has a bold vision for a public art project that finally can lay to rest all of our missteps, bad judgment, rancor and indecisiveness.
Below, some excerpts:
Richmond is a city of enormous historical importance from the formation of the New World, through the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. More recently, this beautiful river city has boasted many impressive achievements, which I will most certainly get back to you on. However, Richmond seems to suffer at times from civic paralysis. Its inability to harness political will and public support for projects big and small often leaves it in a state of perpetual limbo.
To find a way, through public art, to help Richmond recognize its massive failings — to exorcise those demons, if you will, as former City Councilwoman L. Shirley Harvey did atop City Hall all those years ago.
Having visited the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for the outstanding Rodin: Evolution of a Genius exhibition, I learned so much about the great master’s process that I am greatly inspired to incorporate his method of disassembling pieces and using the fragments to create bold new works.
The first revolutionary aspect to my sculpture is that it is not one we gaze up at for inspiration. Rather, we look down on it in disgust and regret. It is a giant hole, cast in bronze, suggesting the hole that sat on the site of the demolished Thalhimers building during years of squabbling between Mayor L. Douglas Wilder and the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation over the construction of CenterStage. As one peers down into the crater, you will notice the bottom to be the familiar shape of a baseball diamond. At home plate, Arthur Ashe stands ready with his racquet for a pitch that will never come, symbolizing Richmond’s long wait for any kind of movement. At first base, the Maymont bears will gently nip the outstretched fingertips of one of the children from the Ashe statue, as a reminder of their senseless slaughter and subsequent tasteless and cringe-inducing memorialization.
At second base the carefully unearthed and transplanted tree from the Adams and Broad triangle — site of the proposed Maggie Walker statue — will be allowed to grow and flourish for at least another 26 years before a Walker statue is finally erected. At third base, the head of Christopher Columbus, whose statue at Byrd Park currently is etched with only the word COLUMBUS, will lie on the ground with letters taken from his monument reading “OL’ SCUM.”
At the pitcher’s mound will stand the two front halves of Lee and Jackson’s horses, welded together in opposite directions, so that we may always be reminded of our crippling indecisiveness.
And perched atop this hole, just at the edge, will be the seated sculpture of Abraham Lincoln and his son, Tad. With the president’s arm lovingly around his boy’s shoulder, a doleful and pensive look on his face, it is a somber suggestion that this generation’s failures don’t have to be the failures of the next.
Though they probably will be.