Tuesday, March 2, 2010

IN COLUMBIA: An iconic sculpture shows artistic side of Black History

by Mike Martin for the Columbia Business Times
When Parkade Center Manager Ben Gakinya asked me to write about what black history means to me for a mall collage in honor of Black History Month this February, Mary McLeod Bethune—who overcame her parents' slavery to establish an all-black women's college and become one of the country's greatest educators—came to mind.
Remembering Bethune reminds us that black history in the United States isn't just about struggle.
It's also about triumph, particularly the flourishing of ideas, culture, art, science and education that marked a decades-long interlude between slavery and segregation. The Harlem Renaissance exploded onto the American scene, and a larger Black Renaissance nationwide gave America doctors, lawyers, preachers, teachers, painters, writers, politicians, philosophers and educators where enslaved field hands had stood before.
Immortalizing that period—from about 1870 to 1930—became the life's work of sculptor Isaac Scott Hathaway, (right) who left a masterpiece at Douglass High School in Columbia: a bronzed ceramic bust of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Hathaway sculpted dozens of black leaders with exquisite care. His sculpture reminds of that intellectual and spiritual renaissance and the way it lighted for subsequent generations, one of which would include America's first black president.
Chosen calling
Legend has it that 9-year-old Isaac was touring a Cincinnati museum with his father in 1883 when he discovered a terrible truth: Black history didn't exist.
"I was looking for a statue of Frederick Douglass," Hathaway told his father. "My teacher said only the truly great are perpetuated in stone and bronze, and Frederick Douglass was a great man."
"That may be," his father said. "But we’ll have to grow our own sculptors."
Working feverishly to grow into that role, Hathaway studied at the New England Conservatory and eventually graduated from his first art studio—a converted chicken coop—to important and fascinating commissions.
In 1904, Kentucky attorney William Marshall Bullitt, who went on to become U.S. attorney general, hired Hathaway, a Lexington, Ky., native, to create the largest plaster crime scene model ever used in a court of law up to that time.
Eight years later, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum hired Hathaway as its official sculptor. Pathe, the black-and-white movie newsreel company, captured Hathaway molding a reproduction of the human fetal brain and advertised the film as "the first motion picture of a black professional at work."
Through the Isaac Hathaway Afro Art Company, he hand-produced limited edition busts of prominent African Americans. At the height of Hathaway's fame, President Harry S. Truman commissioned Hathaway to create 50-cent coins "commemorating the life and perpetuating the ideas of educator Booker T. Washington and scientist George Washington Carver."
Today, Hathaway sculptures memorialize prominent African Americans such as NAACP founder W.E.B DuBois, poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and Bethune in the Isaac Hathaway Art Institute at the University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff and the Isaac Scott Hathaway Museum in Lexington.
Back to school
As a 2005 school board candidate, I visited once-segregated Douglass High School, where principal Brian Gaub (left, with bust, Columbia Tribune photo) showed me what he called "one of the nation’s oldest pieces of African-American art."
I hadn't heard of Hathaway, but I instantly recognized something special—a nearly 3-foot tall, masterfully detailed bust of Douglass that had been in the building "for as long as anyone could remember," Gaub said.
We carefully moved the glass display case away from the wall and saw the inscription: "Isaac Hathaway, 1918" and © —the international copyright symbol.
Frederick Douglass High school was built in 1916 when Hathaway was teaching in nearby Arkansas, but how the bust —one of only three he made—ended up in Columbia remains a mystery.
To confirm its authenticity, I sent pictures to Pennsylvania State University African-American art expert Joyce Henri Robinson; Howard University art history Professor Tritobia Hayes Benjamin; and Henri Linton, curator of the Hathaway Museum at the University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff.
"It was probably commissioned by someone connected to the high school," Linton told me. 
Hathaway biographer Odelia Walker sums up the great artist's life: "Sculpture records the deeds of nations and individuals. Isaac Hathaway understood this and created for us a heroic record of distinguished African Americans. In the process, he left a legacy for and about all races."


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