On Central Park’s Literary Avenue, a place next to Scottish poet Robert Burns has been empty for 175 years — just trees and shrubs.
But in August 2020, a 14-foot-tall bronze sculpture was installed there, depicting feminists Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the Sojourner Truth to commemorate empowering women to vote Centennial of the 19th Amendment.
It’s the park’s first new statute in 70 years, and the first to represent a woman who truly changed history — not a fictional or mythical woman like Mother Goose or Alice in Wonderland.
Millions have visited the Women’s Rights Pioneer Monument on 68th Street, including the men on Literary Avenue, one of the park’s most popular areas.
It has become the best place to take selfies, take flowers, and listen to Meryl Streep, Viola Davis and Rita Moreno tell themed stories on the Talking Statutes app, which Available for download on the website. When Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away, it became an impromptu monument with an “I Vote” sticker on Election Day 2020. Two female New York City mayoral candidates launched their campaigns in front of the monument, where Gov. Kathy Hochul unveiled her abortion rights agenda.
However, few people who see sculpture know the enormous effort that goes into getting the artworks funded, approved, created and installed. Few people know that the drive and talent of the two Montclair residents are at the heart of this work.
One of them was the sculptor Meredith Bergman herself, who was born in the town and graduated from Montclair High School in 1982. Now living in Massachusetts with her filmmaker husband Michael Bergman, she is the creator of many public sculptures, including the Boston Women’s Memorial, and is known for creating artworks that tell stories from the past, With a sense of mischief.
For example, her Central Park monument contains so-called Easter eggs — hidden symbols or clues that help tell a story. Stanton’s dress features sunflowers in tribute to her feather name Sunflower, which she used when writing an editorial for the Seneca Falls newspaper. Antony wears a relief depicting Minerva, the Roman goddess of strategy and wisdom, while Truth wears a jacket woven from a laurel wreath, a symbol of victory and honor.
The second Monclairion behind the statue is accountant Dave Spaulding, who sits on the board of directors for the nonprofit Monumental Women, which helped raise and manage the $1.6 million needed for the project.
Getting funding is just the beginning. The challenge of running city codes and commissions took many years. This included certifying to the Central Park Conservancy that all three women had set foot in Central Park; hiring an arborist to certify that the 36-ton statue and foundation would not damage tree roots, and hiring an archaeologist to inspect the site for artifacts; and establishing Fund to maintain this regulation in perpetuity.
The Court of Public Opinion also held a trial. In 2019, Bergman’s original two female design models sparked an outcry after they were shown in Albany. In it, Stanton and Anthony embark on a long list of women involved in the suffrage struggle (including Montclair’s Lucy Stone). Gloria Steinham and others say the portrayal erases many of the contributions of black women.
New objections arose after Bergman revised the design to include Sojourner Truth and depict the three women in question: There is no evidence the three women ever sat together, Stanton and Anthony did not give the truth, and other black people Suffragists, thank them for their contributions.
We talked with Spaulding and Bergmann about overcoming the odds to bring the feminist statue to life.
How did the Immortal Women’s Group come about?
Spaulding: In 2014, some friends, historians and activists, mostly in the New York area, started talking about the complete absence of real women in the parks and decided we needed to right that wrong. I was invited to the board because I do a lot of accounting for arts organizations. Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s great-great-granddaughter Colleen Jenkins is also on the board.
Give us an overview of the process
Spaulding: We got over 90 submissions, but we like Meredith’s design the most. It was approved in July 2018 and she created it within two years, which is very fast for a committee of this size.
Bergman: A monument is made over and over again. You start with a very small, rough clay model, then a more refined model, then a half-sized model. You want to resolve all your posture decisions. Anthony is 9 feet tall and if she has a hand or arm and you want to move her it will be day after day of full size model work.
For each model, you need to get approval. We had to wait so long for the half-size model to be approved that I had to start working on the full-size before it was approved. It’s kind of like a chicken game.
Spaulding: We didn’t get final approval until late fall 2019, and we had to start installing it in the park on July 5, 2020. We are doing a wing and a prayer.
Bergman: Usually, I create the final bronze sculpture by sculpting a full-scale clay model from a half-scale model through a slow process that involves drawing a grid on the ground and using plumb lines to measure, for example, the position of the arms.
For this monument we needed to save time so we used a digital upscaling process where we scanned a half size clay model and fed it into the computer. The computer drives a milling machine, which makes a full-scale model out of high-density foam and ships it to me. I put a layer of clay on it and cast it in bronze. Before that, though, I had to completely redo the face and hands because they weren’t expressive enough.
Foam is much lighter than clay and I can easily carry all parts of my body without hiring too much help. Usually these monuments require a team.
Spaulding: My wife and I went to Meredith’s house on Thanksgiving 2019 to see the full-scale clay model that was 95% complete. It’s breathtaking. Hands, fingertips, cuticles, veins and muscle tissue – you don’t get that from a computer scan, only from an artist.
How did Montclair influence you as a sculptor?
Bergman: My father’s father came to the area from Austria; my grandfather, aunts and cousins also lived in the city. My mother works at the Whole Theatre and is friends with Apollo and Olympia Dukakis. In 1968, my father ran for town council on the list of the first black mayor, Matthew Carter. He was the only one who lost.
It’s so nice to have a kid in Montclair. We live in Greenview. In elementary school, I walked through Brookdale Park and Yantakao Park four times a day. I’m always dawdling in the park and playing in the creek.
Art class in high school was amazing. There are two art teachers, Art McClaskey and Vernon Maxin. They attended art school together and moved to Montclair with the family to teach together. I started experimenting with ceramics, sculpture, painting and making clothes. At Cooper Union, I tried everything – video, calligraphy and painting. I finally went to my advisor in desperation and she suggested that I try the Bronze Foundry. It was easy; I was able to simulate nubs with wax without any engineering knowledge.
I went to Florence to study sculpture. One day, I got on the train and went along the coast to Carrera, where I met the Italian sculptor Carla Laberio, a friend of the mayor of Montclair, Marie Mochari, who was a friend of my mother. Labellio is a friend of (Japanese-American sculptor Isamu) Noguchi, who is very intimidating, more than life. She did these huge abstract white marble sculptures; she did one for Gerald Ford. Her house is a converted medieval olive oil mill. This is amazing. I moved to the Carrera area. You get off the train and hear the ding ding, the sound of hammers hitting marble from every factory building around you. In a way, that’s heaven.
What are some of the obstacles you face?
Spaulding: The first big hurdle is getting the city to overturn its 70-year ban on new sculptures in parks. There are sculptures all over the park.
We found the location next to Scottish poet Robert Burns on Literary Walk. For 175 years, there had been nothing but trees and shrubs in that place.
In addition to receiving numerous certifications and approvals from experts and local groups, the city is asking for a $100,000 donation from Memorial Women to maintain the statue in perpetuity. Then, because many statues were vandalized and torn down for political reasons at the time, the city also required insurance to be insured within 10 days of installing the statues in the park, which cost an additional $25,000.
Luckily, Beyer Blinder Belle, an excellent architectural firm specializing in conservation and urban design, helped us at a very good price. They are very familiar with the bureaucracy of cities and parks.
What was your reaction when the statue was unveiled?
Bergman: joy. It worked right away, which made me very happy. The debate has been largely forgotten, even forgiven. This happens to almost every public art commission.
We don’t have the historical record of these three feminist advocates sitting together, but they certainly do. They met several times and were both Stanton’s tenants.
I want women to do something different and tell a collaborative story. I researched it but couldn’t find any other narrative monuments in NYC. A monument is a work of art, an interpretation. If you’re just copying a photo or trying to do something neutral, historically correct, absolutely documented, then you’re missing out on a huge opportunity. Not only do I want to interpret history myself, but I also want to leave it to passersby to interpret it. That’s what sculpture can do.
Spaulding: Unlike almost every other regulation in the park, this is not a loner. Something happens; it is essentially alive. That’s not the case when you watch a man on a horse staring in the distance. I mean, what does this say?
Julia Martin received the 2021 New Jersey Professional Journalists Association David Carr Award for her reporting on NorthJersey.com’s Montclair.
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