Among the world’s most arresting works of art are portraits whose eyes seem to follow the viewer around the room. Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is famous for this slightly unnerving quality, achieved in flat paintings via a trick of proportional perspective technically known as the differential rotation effect. It’s employed to great effect in advertising as well – notably posters used for military recruiting, or Smokey Bear saying, “Only you can prevent forest fires.”
Having the advantage of three dimensions, sculptures can fix their gaze on passersby with greater ease. If the subject is a historical figure who wields formidable moral weight, you may not be able to look away without feeling directly challenged to live your own life in closer accord with that person’s high principles.
That’s certainly the case with the seven-foot bronze statue of nineteenth-century abolitionist and suffragist Sojourner Truth recently installed in the Ulster Welcome Center Plaza on the Highland side of Walkway over the Hudson. Her eyes are piercing, full of the fire of her convictions.
The new statue is the work of Vinnie Bagwell, a self-described “untutored artist” previously known for her depictions of luminaries as Ella Fitzgerald, Frederick Douglass and Marvin Gaye. She also sculpts anonymous and allegorical figures, such as those she has created for the Enslaved Africans Rain Garden in her native Yonkers.
Bagwell’s next major project is a 15-foot Angel of Victory commissioned by New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs to replace a controversial statue of J. Marion Sims, a gynecologist who used enslaved women as live subjects for surgical experiments, which was removed in 2018 from its former perch on the perimeter of Central Park at Fifth Avenue and East 103rd Street.
The Sojourner Truth statue was formally dedicated on Wednesday, August 26, the centennial of the ratification of the amendment to the US Constitution giving white women in America the right to vote. In her remarks preceding the sculpture’s unveiling, Bagwell noted the suffrage anniversary, terming it an early step in “an epic worldwide movement toward inclusion” more recently exemplified by Black Lives Matter protests.
Lauding her subject’s personal qualities of discipline and commitment, she added, “My Sojourner Truth has a soul. She’s meant to be appreciated and discovered by children visiting this place.”
New York lieutenant governor Kathy Hochul, who chairs the state’s Women’s Suffrage Commission, took up Bagwell’s theme, expressing the hope that the sculpture would be “an inspiration to the countless individuals who walk through this park. We want little children to see it and ask, ‘Mommy, Daddy, who is that? What did she do?’”
Hochul said that she had “raced up here from the unveiling of another statue in New York City,” Meredith Bergmann’s group sculpture of Truth, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton recently installed on Central Park’s Literary Walk. Calling the three eminent suffragists “comrades in arms,” she placed Truth’s work within a larger historical context of the struggles of women and African Americans in New York State, citing the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls and the home of Harriet Tubman in Auburn.
Taking up the thread of that epic story was Margaret Washington, a professor of History at Cornell University who wrote the 2009 biography Sojourner Truth’s America (University of Illinois Press). She traced the timeline of Truth’s long life from her birth as Isabella Baumfree in Esopus circa 1897, through her escape from slavery – a year before the emancipation of slaves in New York State – by walking over Shaupeneak Ridge with her infant daughter in her arms, to her departure from Manhattan in 1843, claiming a new name and divine inspiration to preach freedom.
Washington is among those historians seeking to deemphasize popular usage of Truth’s so-called “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, as written down by a white audience member in a Southern dialect that Truth herself never spoke. Young Isabella was actually brought up speaking Low Dutch, and was beaten by a later slaveowner for not understanding orders in English. She had a “tongue of fire,” according to Washington, despite always speaking with a “Dutch brogue.” The historian quoted snippets of the famous speech from the 1851 Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, its full dignity restored, while following Truth’s travels from an abolitionist commune in Northampton, Massachusetts to speaking engagements all over the Midwest, to a visit to Washington, DC to campaign for Abraham Lincoln’s reelection in 1864.
Washington also described the rifts that opened in the suffrage movement over ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870, granting the vote to black males only, before women of any race could vote. Truth sojourned in Rochester, New York at that time, but eventually settled in Battle Creek, Michigan, where she made several unsuccessful attempts to cast her vote before dying in 1883.
Among the honored guests at the statue’s dedication was Cory Mcliechey of Grand Rapids, Michigan, who is Sojourner Truth’s great-great-great grandson. Acknowledging that being the great leader’s descendant is “a lot of weight” to carry, Mcliechey said, “I can’t compete, but I’m here to represent.”
The owner of Top Notch Home Improvements, a company that specializes in painting and lead abatement, he said that he has established a vocational training program called Top Notch Kids whose advertising pitch depicts urban youth opting to learn the use of “paint guns, nail guns, heat guns and glue guns” rather than firearms.
Making the world a better place, each in our own small way, is the challenge that confronts every viewer of the new Sojourner Truth statue, as her fierce, determined, unflinching gaze holds our own eyes rapt. “I feel the weight of history on all of our shoulders,” said Kathy Hochul. “They did it for future generations. They have passed that torch to us.”