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VOL. 127 | NO. 63 | Friday, March 30, 2012

Dan Conaway

Dan Conaway

Statues Give City Glimpse Of History

By Dan Conaway

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STANDING FOR HISTORY. She’s tall and proud, sole representative of an all-but-forgotten people, standing alone where hundreds once lived in a village, where thousands once thrived in a nation. She nobly bears the weight of the loss of all of that, wrapped in skins against the lonely chill of that, and in images of all that has come to pass since her time. Silently and beautifully, she tells her story.

She is Chickasaw. She is us.

In her skirts, a young W.C. Handy holds his trumpet, Hernando DeSoto rides his horse, a bluesman plays his guitar, Native American, African-American and Hispanic American history in Memphis play across the folds in bas-relief. Across her shoulders are the names of the Chickasaw villages, including the one that stood where she does in Chickasaw Heritage Park. Where Fort Assumption and Fort Pickering once stood. Where the Metal Museum forges imagination and the abandoned marine hospital is haunted by its own potential. Where the ceremonial mounds of her people stand sentinel over the father of waters. Where the neighborhood of French Fort lives.

She is a statue called Legacies, a gift to us all from UrbanArt Commission, and she’ll be officially dedicated in late June. She is the work of Vinnie Bagwell, a self-taught African-American sculptress whose vision charmed the selection committee and won the commission. That vision allowed her to see our rich heritage from her studio in Yonkers, New York, in ways we’re often too shortsighted to observe ourselves.

In college, one of my drive-by majors was art, and while absence of talent moved me on to other things, I was and remain fascinated by art history. Art doesn’t just show us, it tells us, moves us,

surprises, comforts and frightens us. The vision of one, shared with many. The inspiration of one, inspiring some, baffling others, challenging all. Art transports and transcends.

Statues are more than part of art history, they are history art, and Memphis has some beautiful public teachers.

Whether you believe Nathan Bedford Forrest was a Ku Klux Klan founder, a slave trader, or a great cavalry officer, facts are, he was all of those, part of history and part of us, and his equestrian statue is one of the finest examples of the genre anywhere. In Overton Park, The Doughboy still advances against tyranny and Boss Crump still greets you at the entrance in a truly great greatcoat. Our history and our storied dead are magnificently marked in an 80-acre sculpture garden called Elmwood. There are many more long-standing examples and, after a long absence and thanks to UrbanArt, an increasing number of new and intriguing ones are rising.

Visit Legacies and take your kids. See if you can figure out the imagery. Play on ancient mounds later serving as Civil War battery and magazine. See the big, sweeping turn in the river, feel the ghosts of long-settled conflict, and, if you have room, take me along.

I’m a Memphian, and our public art stands for us.

Dan Conaway is a lifelong Memphian, longtime adman and aspiring local character in a city known for them. Reach him at dan@wakesomebodyup.com.

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