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Freedmen’s Cemetery Statue Proposals on Display

— Three proposals for statues to be added to the Contrabands’ and Freedmen’s Cemetery will be on display for public comment at the Durant Arts Center at 1605 Cameron Street until Aug. 6.

The model statues were designed by three sculptors selected from a pool of 38 applicants by a panel of stakeholders in the project, including the Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetery, descendant family members, and subject matters experts in public art, history and design.

After the exhibition, the selection panel will review comments made by the public and submit a decision to the Alexandria Commission for the Arts and City Council.

The winner will be announced in September, and the statue will be installed by the end of April 2013.

The project budget is $350,000 and is being funded by the city, the Federal Highway Administration and the Virginia Department of Transportation as part of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge settlement agreement.

The three sculptors, Erik Blome, Mario Chiodo and Edward Dwight, spoke to the public about the meaning and inspiration behind their work at a reception at the Durant Center July 7.

CHIODO’S SCULPTURE, "The Path of Thorns and Roses," contains the figures of male and female slaves, one above another, positioned in a double helix fashion that Chiodo’s artist’s statement says represents the common DNA of mankind. From bottom to top, the figures are Oppression, Struggle, Sacrifice, Courage and Hope.

Chiodo said that the state of the bodies of the figure lower down in the piece, such as Oppression and Struggle, was representative of the diseases, such as typhus, that slaves were afflicted with.

"What I felt is, we should be proud of our bodies, and that’s why I shaped them this way," he said.

Sacrifice is a mother holding a child, symbolic of the slave children who died. Courage, also a mother with a child, symbolizes a new chapter in life and offers a rose of hope to Sacrifice.

Hope is a male with closed eyes, meant to symbolize that hope is within grasp but still unattainable due to hardships. Hope stands on his tiptoes to avoid the hardships represented by the portal of thorns on which he stands. He also holds a partially blossomed rose that represents freedom.

BLOME’S STATUE, "Ascending Memories" contains three towers made of cubical pieces stacked pointing in different direction with faces of a family in the middle of some blocks.

Blome said the faces in the family are representative of "not just family as in African Americans, but family as in America."

The blocks in each tower face different directions to emphasize the fragmented history of the slaves.

The tower design was inspired by African sculptures and totems, with which Blome decided to incorporate traditional portraiture. The faces in the statue are inspired by photos of living descendants.

According to Blome’s artist’s statement, the blocks are like windows into the families’ lives.

The statue will be 14 feet high and made entirely of cast bronze except for upper the pieces of the statue, such as a figure of the sun representing hope, which will be hand carved from red granite.

DWIGHT’S STATUE, "Oppression," shows a group of slave men and women in period clothing, holding symbols of the religion and art that the slaves were forbidden to practice.

"I got into the religion of the slaves, which nobody talks about because everybody assumes that they took on the religion of their masters," Dwight said. "But they have religions of their own, and so, as a result, depending on what part of Africa they were from, what kind of tribe they were from, and their belief system, and how God operated, how the afterlife operated, ’cause a lot of the slaves believed in reincarnation."

Dwight, a former astronaut, told the crowd that he used to think he had accomplished everything in his life all on his own, but that he has since become grateful for the progress made in race relations over the years and that he wants this statue to educate black children about their history.

"Something happened here, and you got to know about it, and you got to understand it," he said.

A number of Old Town Alexandria Community members at the reception said they preferred Dwight’s statue.

Amber McLaughlin said she originally was leaning toward one of the other statues, but changed her mind after hearing him speak because of "how it’s important to him to have children walk away with a true image of what the people looked like and the symbols of the religion that they practiced."

Barbara Bellamy also liked the idea of the statue as educational.

"And I think, sometimes, specifically African Americans, and just Americans in general, have to have an idea, or be able to know what it was like, and that one in particular depicts that most in my mind."

Bellamy also said that she liked the simplicity of the statue. David Martin, sculptor and owner of Goldworks in Alexandria, however, said he thought "Oppression" was too traditional and that he was initially more impressed by the other pieces because he thought the research that went into them was more evident. After looking at the statues another time, he said was impressed by all three of them, but that he was leaning toward "Ascending Memories."

"I have my own personal inclinations," Martin said. "When you think of Alexandria, Virginia, we all come up with something different. I’m more contemporary."

According to Alisa Carrel, who was the deputy director for the Office of the Arts until July 6, the decision to add a statue came out of the original cemetery design competition for the cemetery sculpture.

"The selection panel for that project felt very strongly that there needed to be something in addition to what was proposed, and they like the idea of adding a sculpture, some type of figurative brown sculpture."

Carrel said that there will be some kind of sign with information on the chosen statue when it is installed, but that the whole story wouldn’t be included, so as to encourage people to do more research on the history of the cemetery themselves at a website for the Contrabands’ and Freedman’s Cemetery Memorial. See a link at http://alexandriava.gov/Arts.

The website will soon contain photos and descriptions of each statue.

To make comment on the statues, either visit the Durant Center or send an email at aca@alexandriava.gov.