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There Are Superheroes

There are heroes and then there are superheroes. Arriving in the USA to install the statue of former slave, turned abolitionist, turned statesman Frederick Douglass, I soon came to understand that Andrew Edwards statue had truly encapsulated such a man.

It is rare for a British artist to receive a commission for a civic work in America. There is a great tradition of figurative statuary and no shortage of sculptors with the skill and vision, and the bravery to take on the job. To do the hero justice. Having the courage to open themselves to criticism or acclaim.

To be immortalised in bronze and placed on a pedestal is quite a thing, even for the great and good. It’s probably true to say no one who deserves a statue would ever have wanted one. But we need to honour our heroes and in so doing keep their spirit alive. We’ve been at it since the ancient Greeks.

Now I find myself among the temples of academia, the neoclassical columns and stone steps which make up the University of Maryland. Lying between Baltimore and Washington and not so far from the birthplace of our hero.

There’s a back story. Andy made the statue a few years ago for Ireland where Douglass had lived for a while as he travelled and spoke out for his people. The project fell through but we cast the full size statue in resin and thanks to the determination of Irish writer Don Mullan it was exhibited in Dublin and later in USA.

This is not an easy work. Not your standard pose. This is dynamic. He has the look of a roaring lion. The orator as superhero, delivering his words with ferocity. Mouth open wide, hand outstretched; amplifying his message. His cape billows in the wind. He stands, fearless in the storm.

There was great excitement as we opened the crate and lifted the work in place. The commissioners were unsure whether to cover up the statue for a week in anticipation of the dedication ceremony and asked my advice. I suggested not to, as already I had witnessed a real emotional response to the work and hiding it away seemed unfair, somehow. They agreed. Two days later a student demo gathered around the statue. It was working already, the spirit of Frederick Douglass, making his presence felt.

With a few days to spare before flying home I go to New York. Wandering about the city I strike up conversations with pretty much anyone, as we tend to do when travelling alone. Ever American I encounter knows about Frederick Douglass and I am pointed in the direction of two other statues of him, not far apart.

One stands on the top of the steps, greeting visitors to the New York Historical Society. I ask a passer by to take my photo next to it.

The poster for their current exhibition “Superheroes in Gotham” catches my eye. For a second I think it’s a silhouetted shot of our sculpture but this is a fictional caped crusader.

Then I stroll to the top of Central Park to 110 St, leading to Frederick Douglass Boulevard. The start of famous Harlem. This time the statue is set in a small plaza, bordered by bronze panels inscribed with quotes. I ask a couple to take a picture of me with Frederick. Suddenly a local hustler comes bouncing into the scene. I hold out my hand and ask him have his photo taken with Frederick and me. I need him for my shot I tell him. My request seems to catch him by surprise.

This is a man more used to asking others for help. He happily obliges and shakes me by the hand.

The tourists disappear and I chat with Damien. I asked about his life in Harlem. He told me of his troubles, but with laughter not tears. Homeless by choice he tells me. By choice? We talked about Frederick Douglass. How brave he must have been. Fearless. All under the shadow of the great man. Just as the conversation starts to get all philosophical, Damien reminds me he is a professional pan handler and needs to get moving. I oblige with a five dollar bill he had definitely earned today.

Before we started the project I hadn’t heard of Frederick Douglass. The sculpture has educated me. Now I find myself standing in Harlem discussing his life. Three different sculptors’ visions. Signposts directing us to a man who fought for all humanity. Etched in my mind are the bronze cast words of the orator. They resonant, along with the permanence of his statue.

“The types of mankind are various. They differ like the waves, but are one like the sea”.

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