When I met sculptor Francis Miller, he was finishing up a days work on Deerfield’s Civil war monument. He was putting his tools in his truck and probably about to drive off but then I came…and two more people after that.
I had always wanted to hear a sculpture’s opinion about historic monuments being taken down and after introducing myself he very kindly, answered my questions.
What you think about historic monuments being taken down?
… I think about the reason it was put up and how it functions today…if something is causing harm, it is a problem…however, there’s a flip side. I understand why so many people- white people in the south predominantly- are tying to hold on to these Civil War icons… icons to them [anyway].
I did some work in Arkansas at the national cemetery on the Minnesota monument. After the war they brought down grand from Minnesota- beautiful grand plant- they built a really tall, a 10 foot tall Union Solider on top… then from here to the flag pole there’s a little obelisk about yay high built out of marble leaning to the side and it reads: here are buried 540 confederate deaths.
So, after the war, the north clearly didn’t try economically and somewhat socially,…to make amends for all the damage that they caused within that community….and that would be for the whites…. After that kind of devastation and poverty they were trying to hold on to something for identity and I think it became the Civil War leaders. I can’t fault them for grabbing on to something, it’s just the wrong thing.
What about honoring the past regardless of whose past it is?….I understand, this statue is not representing you or you disagree with what he did in the past but it’s the past… When we look at history and we open up our books, if there’s something to represent that history, then we can tell our kids- this is the place where so and so happened and even though we don’t agree with what was done or said, in the past they really honored him which is why there is a statue of him here.
Right, but then the problem I had was a lot of them were put up in the Jim Crow era. So they were put up as a means of oppression right in the heart of the city… still claiming that dominance. And that was the line I thought was crossed when I learned about the history of the monuments…[These statues] were not generated immediately after the Civil War [or during the] historical period [it seemingly represented], [the statues were built much later to keep a whole community of people under oppression]….
So, yeah, I don’t have a problem with those moments coming down.
If they…were closely aligned with the Civil War and were honoring the people who they thought were important for their community heritage and history, then I wouldn’t think they should be torn down because it would mark history.
It’s still not an easy thing to grapple with and it would be ashamed if all of the statues come down….However these newer monuments? We should put the brakes on these monuments. We should think about when they were invented and why and who funded them? What the climate was at that time- socially? I think there are some legitimate reasons to get these things removed.
I also was thinking about …communities…[particularly poor communities] with historical monuments. Instead of spending so much time [trying to figure out if a monument should be taken down or should we build a new one], there’s also other monuments that are still standing that need to be taken care of, like what you are doing here…
There is a wall in Brooklyn, a frieze, done by a very prominent artist during the 20’s and 30’s. Richmond Barthe. A Harlem Renaissance artist. It was done during the great depression I think.
What is it?
It’s like a wall mural but it’s not a painting, it’s like a …carving into a stone wall ….its an image of blacks dancing and slaves escaping. The wall is cracking and it’s not being taken care of. We spend so much time on taking something down or breaking something up, lets take care of what we have as well…the art that is meaningful.
Yeah, I agree. The civil war monuments are so charged. They are charged emotionally. They are charged politically.
I think another issue is, when it’s taken down…Its still apart of history. It’s still saying something. Like when I go to Florida and I see the statue of Andrew Jackson, we know what he stood for but he’s there…I know he had a lot say about my people but I don’t know if today it would really mean anything if we just took it down….and then put it where? Where would we put it? I remember I went to Argentina and saw they did something similar. They took down statues…and at the back of their ‘White House’ they had so many statues there. It was an eyesore. What are you going to do with that?!
In my heart, I love preserving things. I always have and that’s my initial reaction for anything- save. And culturally I think we are much richer having these things even if there may be some controversy but I think there is a limit.
How did you get into sculpting anyway, Mr. Miller?
In middle school, I started making a ton of stuff. My family took a trip to the grand canyon and we went to a Native American Shop. Everything was probably made in China… but I was fascinated with these little sculptures that was in this shop! And I said, Wow, that’s what I wanna do. I want to make sculpture.
What are the names of your favorite artist?
I have a pretty broad range. One of my favorite artist is, Alberto Giacometti. I love his work so much. Kiki Smith, a more contemporary sculpture…Richard Sarra….
You ever heard of Augusta Savage?
No, not by name.
She was also a sculpture and lived during the 20’s and 30’s. She graduated from Cooper Union and during the world’s fair she created a piece called Lift Every Voice and Sing or The Harp…However not much of her work was preserved…
Let me see if I can pull it up. Oh, there she is…let…Oh, yeah, there she is. Cool. Let me put on my glasses…Wow! And African American Sculpture!! That just wasn’t prominent at all!!
We spoke until an older gentleman came by and asked Mr. Miller for help taking a photo the Civil War monument.
If you are interested in the Harlem Renaissance Frieze piece by Richmond Barthe here is a link to the article: https://hyperallergic.com/473342/an-iconic-harlem-renaissance-frieze-is-crumbling-in-brooklyn/