Impressive Sculpture Memorial Honors the Little Rock Nine
June 26, 2007
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Kerry Kraus, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism
Nine solemn figures. Nine teenagers just trying to do what every child up to age 18 has been mandated to do: go to school. Nine figures who entered the annals of American history when they passed through the front door of Little Rock Central High School on Sept. 25, 1957.
These nine African American students – Melba Pattillo, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray, Carlotta Walls, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, Minnijean Brown and Thelma Mothershed -- are now immortalized in a striking memorial located on the grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock.
The life-size statues were designed and sculpted by Little Rock artist John Deering, who was assisted by his wife Kathy, also an artist. A comment from each of The Nine is found on individual bronze plaques identifying which student is which. The idea for the monument was the brainchild of Deering which he says came to him after the 40th anniversary of the 1957 Little Rock Desegregation Crisis in 1997.
"After that event, it occurred to me that a monument or commemorative depiction of The Nine had not (to my knowledge) been done. I discussed this with some coworkers who suggested different ways this could be done. But my initial idea was the one I proposed in the end to the Little Rock Nine Foundation - to show The Nine as a group as they appeared in 1957. And the idea was also to do this with life-size figures." Deering estimates that "overall, from concept to final installation at the Capitol, the Little Rock Nine sculpture took roughly seven years."
When asked about the significance of the positions of The Nine, Deering replied, "The placement of the figures in general, the overall composition, is intended to convey that the students might be walking as a group to enter the school. This is the one element that is the most stylized, since The Nine usually arrived at school in smaller groups, or individually (an actually scarier prospect than the way they are depicted in the sculpture)."
Deering also factored in the personality traits that are, as he says, "often associated with each of the individuals: Elizabeth Eckford in front, looking ahead with a mix of stoicism and apprehension." Terrence Roberts, to her left but also in front, is "facing the same adversity with the best defense he had -- his wit and personality. Posture and body language are used to show the overall character of each person, to try to give future visitors to the monument a sense of who these young people were, individually and as a group."
Pulitzer Prize-nominated photos by the late Will Counts, who at the time was a photographer for the Arkansas Democrat
, provided the basis for the features of each student. He is especially known for the photo of Elizabeth Eckford being taunted by white students on her way to school.
Life-size clay models were sculpted by Deering and his wife Kathy which served as molds for the cast bronze statues. Deering estimates the sculpting took about a year. His studio partner Steve Scallion built the steel frameworks which served as the foundation for the clay. Once the clay work was done, the models were driven to Shidoni Bronze Foundry in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to be cast. The bronzing process took approximately 10 months.
The Little Rock Nine’s reaction to the sculpture was one thing Deering looked forward to, and he admits also "worried about." Initially there was some "understandable skepticism" expressed by Ms. Eckford "that the project would even be allowed to go forward." Her doubts disappeared when Deering called to tell her the funding had been approved by the legislature. According to Deering, she broke down and cried. The artist says that "in spite of some initial skepticism about our prospects, Ms. Eckford and the others were very supportive of the sculpture's concept from the beginning."
Deering says that at the Aug. 30, 2005 dedication ceremonies, he got the impression that as The Nine stood by their bronze likenesses, they were pleased not only in the way they were represented but that the project had provided some sort of closure for the group. He continues by saying that the next day USA Today
ran a photo of Melba Patillo Beales wiping away tears while looking at her younger self preserved for posterity.
"I found Minnijean Brown Trickey to be very proud, and also a bit amazed that her likeness is at the Capitol," Deering shares. "She is so funny - at dinner the night before the unveiling, she smiled at Kathy and me and shook her head, saying ‘you guys have to be crazy’ to have done the project." He says he has "run into Minnijean and her daughter Spirit [a park ranger/public information officer at the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site] at the monument on my way home in the evening. They just drop by there to look – not because of a ceremony or because they have to but because they seem really happy to go back and visit." He concludes by saying "And that is the best reward I will receive as a sculptor."
The memorial is located on the Arkansas State Capitol grounds on the north end of the building off Third Street.
The 50th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine’s admittance to Little Rock Central High School will be celebrated Sept. 23-25. One of the highlights of the event is the Sept. 24 unveiling of the new National Park visitor center across the street from the school. For information on anniversary events taking place, go to www.nps.gov/chsc/50th-anniversary.htm or call 501-374-1957. ####
Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606
May be used without permission. Credit line is appreciated:
"Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism”