The Boston Women’s Memorial

by Meredith Bergmann

Meredith Bergmann, Boston Women’s Memorial, 2003 Courtesy of the artistIn 1992 over 100 people met at the Old South Meeting House to discuss the under-representation of women among Boston’s public statues. A task force that became a site committee for a Women’s Memorial chose three inspiring women—Abigail Adams, Lucy Stone and Phillis Wheatley—and secured the last empty memorial site on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall. The theme uniting the three women was that all had an impact on the idea of justice in our society through their writing, and this theme would be linked to educational programs. This part of the process, with many fervent discussions, took six years. Their next step was to select an artist, and to do that they had to formulate what they wanted that artist to achieve. Public art originates with a call for help with a group’s expression. The group may issue an overt challenge to an artist to resolve contradictions or heal civic wounds, but the unspoken challenge is to the artist to create a work that has the power of what might be called “private” art, the kind the artist is driven to create only by the private urgencies of her or his own psyche. Every group hopes to commission a great work, for only art that arouses a passionate response is likely to bring much nourishment to the community it is intended to serve. We tend to believe that powerful art emanates from the aroused passions of the artist, and the public process must meet the both public’s needs and the artist’s.

At the first meeting I attended as a competition finalist, the site committee challenged us to design a contemporary work that would not be in conflict with the beautifully preserved nineteenth-century environment of Commonwealth Avenue Mall. This avenue of brick and brownstone townhouses, stone churches and dormitories has no commerce, no advertising. A progression of monuments, all to men, occupied a central promenade lined with elm trees. The formal vocabulary of these monuments—bronze upon inscribed stone—appealed to both my sense of order and my sense of humor. There was something about the seriousness of this commission, reminiscent of the “moral earnestness” that characterized monument-building in the nineteenth century, that earned my deepest respect (for the committee’s passionate sense of need and neglect) and yet provoked in me an answering need to critique that sense of entitlement, to leaven that earnestness with wit and to try to combine beauty and idealism with the facts of life. This attitude comes in part from my artistic education and a lot from being a woman.

To my surprise, I drew inspiration and encouragement for my independent attitude from the words of Adams, Stone and Wheatley as I began to research them. Adams wrote to her husband during one of the long separations, for reasons of State, that characterized their marriage: “O, Why was I born with so much Sensibility and why possessing it have I so often been call’d to struggle with it?” For each of these women, life was a passionate struggle against both the external controls of society and the internal limitations of their own imaginations, conducted amidst a host of chores and cares: making soap or melting down spoons to cast bullets, nursing and burying children, defending their husbands’ reputations and begging for subscribers. Reading their vivid words, I realized that this struggle was the story about women that I wanted to tell.

I studied the existing monuments along the Mall and decided that the formal symbols for remembrance, heroism and stature had to be used in a new way, for women. Each woman, like the men already memorialized, would be sculpted in bronze, larger than life, and have a tall granite pedestal with her words inscribed on it. I suddenly realized that I could portray the women as having come down off their pedestals, making a feminist metaphor literal and concrete. This would give the memorial a powerful symbolic structure that I could express both in words and in forms. Part of what defines contemporary art is its acute self-consciousness. My design makes reference to the moment when looming memorial sculpture of the nineteenth century was subverted by Rodin, who made a point of designing his Burghers of Calais to stand down on the common ground. But these women are not standing in heroic idleness, nor trudging in Rodin’s “living rosary of suffering and sacrifice.” They have come down to work, and thoughtfully put their skewed and tumbled pedestals to use. The design can be said, in all seriousness, to deconstruct and recycle traditional memorial design.

Each woman became emblematic of a stage of life and a kind of writing: imaginative, contemplative and activist. Wheatley sits in regal stillness but is charged with artistic energy,Adams is paused in activity and immersed in history, and Stone (who engaged most directly with the struggle for women’s rights) is an embodiment of physical and moral strength. Each figure is posed in relation to her pedestal in a unique way that adds to her portrait. Stone has attempted to subdue and steer her pedestal, Adams leans in companionable, almost spousal co-existence on hers, and Wheatley has made hers into a desk, the object that symbolizes the privacy that she won with her talent while still a slave. I placed them around the circle, each absorbed in her work, with quotations or biographies readable from any angle to encourage visitors to compare their ideas and actions and to form their own conversation among them.

Schematic silhouette of a woman based on the Venus of Willendorf,  which inspired the base molding.My design won the competition in June of 1998. The first work that I did to refine the design before it was presented to the various city commissions was to stage a sculpture rehearsal on the Mall with three very tall women and three painted foam-core pedestals resting on a large circle of painted fabric, to test the scale. In my proposal I had written that I wanted the women to have pedestals, “which are second only to obelisks as symbols of male power, to use for their own ends of female creativity, activism and expression.” It had been my original intention to contrast the pedestals with the figures: masculine/feminine, minimal/figurative. The committee was concerned that the pedestals, originally three simple rectangular blocks, were too large for the figures and “too blocky.” The 78-inch-tall blocks seemed small enough outdoors, but still dismayed the committee as not seeming feminine enough.

A committee’s comments seem to the artist, at first, to be asking for something simpler and duller—although everyone is delighted if the artist can make it better. I began, that day, to learn to hear the question behind the criticism, the disappointed incomprehension behind the attack and even the problematic relief behind the compliment. This process of interpretation led me to understand better the needs the memorial would have to satisfy, and challenged me to make the work richer and more interesting. In this case, I was able to see that, by making the blocks smaller and adding a base with moldings to each one I would increase the number of elements I could play with and give Wheatley’s figure a seat. I redesigned Stone’s pose, using the two elements to prolong her climb. Eventually it occurred to me to use the molding profile to form the schematic silhouette of a woman (based on the Venus of Willendorf) so that the architecture is truly feminized.

I made each sculpture at least three times: as a twelve-inch model, a three-foot model and then at the finished size of just over six feet tall. At each stage my ideas and work were tested before commissions and committees. Sometimes there were loud, passionate discussions of details, such as whether Abigail Adams could be portrayed without a hat.

When I made the three-foot-tall model and set it up to scale in my studio, I realized that I had given the three figures parity from above (it’s easy to think in these terms when working with a small model as an object on a table), and oriented them so that each would occupy one-third of the circle and would look in three different directions, encouraging visitors to move around the circle and providing significant views from all angles. At half size, I reached the point where I could better simulate the experience of visiting the memorial from ground level. Only then did I realize how the site would determine the interpretation of my design: the traditional eastward orientation of the other statues along the Mall made the eastern entry the definitive approach. The figure of Wheatley was turned away from this approach, and the mass of her body and skirt faced away from it. I was concerned that this aspect of the design could be interpreted as showing less respect to Wheatley. I did not want to create anything that reflected the racism that continues to pervade our society. I hired a model, studied possible variations to the pose and swung the lower half of Wheatley’s body around so that she could still plausibly sit and write but would show her familiar, iconic profile to the main approach. Besides bringing Wheatley into greater prominence, this change allowed the flowing drapery of her skirt to balance that of Stone’s. I was careful to design her figure so that this change did not make any of the other approaches or angles of view less interesting. In fact, it’s a far more beautiful and interesting sculpture.

Meredith Bergmann, Boston Women’s Memorial  (detail, Phillis Wheatley), 2003 Courtesy of the artist  I made other changes to the figures at full size, based on further research, comments by the committee that visited my studio, a visit from a descendant of Abigail Adams (which gave me a chance to study his face) and from seeing the work in its final scale. The costumes are only half-historical (and half goddess), but Adams’s gown acquired a more historically accurate drape after a curator in Quincy gingerly took one of her dresses out of its archival tissue and held it up for me. I added more detail and ornament to her costume, and her signature corkscrew curls, only after her basic figure and face had enough formal strength and character to sustain that level of detail. Then I added more volume and deeper modeling to her shawl, to better match the strongly modeled drapery on the other two figures.

Abigail Adams initially seemed the most distant to me, perhaps because she is the one I learned about in childhood—so I made her the eldest. Her life was that of a mother and wife of enormous influence and fertility, a paradigm of maternal involvement. It was important to me to show her at a relatively happy age, before (as she believed) the prolonged sickness and death of her only daughter had “stamped with indelible furros [sic] your Mother’s visage” and “written strange the feature o’er my face.” Though grief has often been the lot of women, I chose the moment before the grief hit. She stands unbent like a strong tree, and her face is alert and questioning, with a hint of the loving humor that enlivens her letters.

Unlike Adams, who was portrayed many times by different artists, or Stone, who lived recently enough to be photographed and was famous enough to have sat for a marble bust, Phillis Wheatley was portrayed only once in her lifetime, in an extremely conventionalized profile engraved for her book of poetry. She is shown with kinky hair and round eyes, an implausibly high, flat forehead to signify a noble mind, studiously pursed lips and a thoughtfully melancholy pose, chin in hand. Although her poems relate bits of the story of her being stolen from her parents and sold into slavery, there is nothing like the confessional tone of today’s poets in her pious couplets. Only in her descriptions of the potential of a free inner life could I experience a deep sense of recognition, when she expressed her ambition, yearning and sense of profound injustice in metaphors of soaring flight. In this case, the identification was profound: I had to study poetry to read hers in context, and that led me to take poetry classes and to writing poetry of my own.

I also searched each woman’s writings for evidence of her response to art, to creativity and to statues. Lucy Stone experienced an epiphany in front of a statue, when she visited Boston years before she was to settle there. She saw Hiram Powers’s Greek Slave, a white marble statue of a young woman who was orphaned by the Turks during the Greek Revolution of 1821–1830 and forced to stand naked (against her will) on the auction block (or pedestal). In part because it was a culturally acceptable, tasteful nude, the Greek Slave became the first celebrity sculpture inAmerica, widely exhibited and reproduced. Stone told her daughter: “there it stood in the silence, with fettered hands and half-averted face—so emblematic of women. I remember how the hot tears came to my eyes at the thought of the millions of women who must be freed…it took hold of me like Samson upon the gates of Gaza.” That night she began to speak for women’s rights and when scolded for neglecting her anti-slavery topic, replied: “I was a woman before I was an abolitionist.” I love this story, in part, because when I look at that statue I can’t—and most museumgoers nowadays can’t—see what she saw. In honor of this instance of the power of sculpture to change the world, I made a brooch for Stone’s bodice with a tiny profile of the head of the Greek Slave.

From the beginning of this process I tried to immerse myself in this material, believing that only by somehow making it my own and speaking it fluently would I be able to convey the quality of women’s struggle for liberation and achievement. The message of the memorial, I believe, is that because great women have had to struggle against both external and internal limitations while leading lives biologically determined to center around the needs of other people, they have a great deal to teach us about leading balanced but uncompromising lives. They combined unrelenting persistence with humor, devotion to their work with rich personal relationships, enormous energy with tenderness, anger with strategy, and faith that led them beyond life’s tragedies. I tried to make every part of the memorial embody this message.

My only serious regret is that the budget would not cover the cost of the blood-red African granite I wanted to use as a pavement, as a reference to the blood shed by women in life-affirming ways and to honor Phillis Wheatley and the many African-Americans imported fromAfrica, like stone or any other goods, in the holds of ships. The floor of the memorial is a mild reddish-brown stone that deepens to blood-color only in the rain.

After the Memorial was unveiled in 2003, someone began leaving bouquets of flowers at Abigail Adams’s feet, and then for days people would move the flowers around among bronze fingers and behind bronze ears. Right before the first snow a sweater was left draped around Lucy Stone’s shoulders. I’ve watched children climb onto Phillis Wheatley’s pedestal, stare into her eyes and touch her nose in wonder, and passersby stop to see the figures and then step intimately close to trace the carved quotations, closing the distance between legend and life.

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2005, Volume 22, Number 3