This article is part of our latest Fine Arts & Exhibits special report, which focuses on how art endures and inspires, even in the darkest of times.
When Eleanor Jordan first visited the Kentucky Capitol as an 11-year-old, she didn’t see herself, a Black girl, represented in the grand halls. “I saw only paintings, statues, busts of white men,” said the former state legislator. “That sent a profound message to me as a little girl that ‘You have no place here. No one of your gender or race has done anything significant enough for people to remember.’”
A year from now, the view will be a little different for students touring the Capitol, once a statue of Nettie Depp, a teacher and administrator who was elected as a county school superintendent seven years before women got the vote, is unveiled in August.
The statue is the result of a multiyear effort by the sculptor Amanda Matthews that began in 2014, when a sentence in a newspaper article caught her eye: “The closest thing to a woman honored by a full-scale statue on public property in Kentucky is Carolina, Gen. John Breckinridge Castleman’s horse.”
Ms. Matthews made it her mission to change that.
In a way, it’s not surprising that it took this long to have a statue of a woman in the state Capitol, said Kentucky’s lieutenant governor, Jacqueline Coleman. “There’s a lack of women leaders at the helm, which leads to gaps like this, and who we decide to honor and how we value history.”
Statues are a signal of who is valued in a society, and judging by the numbers, that would be men. A 2017 CNN analysis found that only 10 percent of public outdoor sculptures in the United States were of women.
But public monuments are coming under increased scrutiny, the values they represent often proving less resilient than their bronze and marble forms. At the same time, grass-roots support for new statues is growing more diverse.
“As these historically marginalized populations become more vocal and have been able to exert more agency in the public sphere,” said Joy Giguere, who teaches history at Pennsylvania State University in York, “we see greater calls for, essentially, self-representation.”
Ms. Matthews, who owns the design-and-build firm and foundry Prometheus Art in Kentucky with her husband, Brad Connell, began inquiring about how to get a statue of a woman in the state Capitol. She was connected with Ms. Jordan, a former state representative from Louisville who was then executive director of the Kentucky Commission on Women, who worked with the Commission to select Nettie Depp as the subject.
Ms. Jordan warned Ms. Matthews when they began that it would be an uphill climb, and it was, particularly when it came to funding. Ms. Matthews and her husband have committed $40,000 of their own money, and they have taken out a loan to continue work as they continue to fund-raise.
The 7-foot-4 statue, plus plinth and installation costs, will total $167,000. Public statuary is expensive, requiring extensive fund-raising and grant applications.
This year, Indiana announced a series of substantial one-time grants aligned with the suffrage centennial to support the preservation of women’s history across the state, “to make sure that more places associated with women’s contributions in Indiana are memorialized,” said Leah Nahmias of Indiana Humanities.
The grantees are selecting the artists; one project, a statue of Sojourner Truth, will be by a male sculptor. Men dominate the field of large-scale sculpture, especially, said Ms. Matthews, when it comes to the foundries, metal suppliers and engineers. But women such as Ms. Matthews are challenging the norm and pursuing projects honoring women.
In 2013, when Monumental Women, a nonprofit organized to promote statues of women in New York, began campaigning for the Central Park monument, only five of New York City’s public statues were of historic women. The Central Park monument, featuring Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Sojourner Truth, makes six.
“What does it say to little girls and little boys when you walk in that park and the only female representations are Alice in Wonderland, Mother Goose, Juliet with Romeo,” said Pam Elam, president of Monumental Women. “Beyond that, it breaks my heart that all those years, and all those people walking through Central Park, quite a large number of them never noticed real women were missing.”
Jane DeDecker, whose works include a statue of Harriet Tubman at the William J. Clinton Library in Little Rock, Ark., submitted a design for the Central Park monument that is now proposed for Washington. Both Ms. Bergmann and Ms. DeDecker made statues for Converse College, in South Carolina, as part of a series commissioned to depict prominent women.
Vinnie Bagwell is creating “Victory Beyond Sims,” a monument to replace the Central Park statue of J. Marion Sims, a gynecologist who experimented on enslaved Black women. And as Ms. Matthews was working on Nettie Depp, she also sculpted the pioneering Black journalist Alice Dunnigan, and in 2019 received the commission for the Roosevelt Island memorial to the investigative journalist Nellie Bly.
The Bly memorial, to be installed in 2021, is a turning point for Ms. Matthews. “The Girl Puzzle,” named for Ms. Bly’s first article, is a chance to highlight not only the legendary reporter, but also the marginalized girls and women she championed.
Ms. Bagwell, who sculpted Ella Fitzgerald for Yonkers, N.Y., said she would like communities to take stock of who is represented and look for the people and stories worth recognition. “I really want to see public art about the everyday people that make that place great,” she said.
Communities that care about their statues care for them. When the Boston Women’s Memorial was installed, Ms. Bergmann said, people put a sweater on Lucy Stone and stuck “I Voted” stickers on the women.
“Every winter, a scarf appears on [Ella Fitzgerald’s] neck,” Ms. Bagwell said. “People put flowers in her hands on her birthday every year. People adore Ella Fitzgerald and they show it through the sculpture.”
Stories like this stand in relief against calls for removing controversial monuments. Both prove that statues have an effect on the public.
On Sept. 19, after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced that New York would honor the Supreme Court justice with a statue in Brooklyn, her hometown. On Oct. 15, his office named a committee to oversee the project, including the selection of an artist.
Ms. Matthews is ready.