“This sounds absolutely wonderful. What is it we can do to help?” Commissioner David Nestler said following a presentation that Marsha Lee Baker of the Jackson County NAACP gave during the meeting.
The 9-foot bronze sculpture Harriet Tubman: Journey to Freedom, from Emmy-winning Cashiers artist Wesley Wofford, is currently displayed at the Newburgh Free Library in Newburgh, New York. It depicts the courageous Underground Railroad conductor as a woman in her 20s, a snapshot of a storied life that lasted more than 90 years. It is tentatively scheduled to appear in Sylva next fall, should grant funding come through.
“Wofford depicts Tubman as the role model and hero she is,” reads a description of the piece from the National Sculpture Society. “Tubman, confidently leading a slave girl on The Underground Railroad to freedom, leans into the wind, bracing herself against the elements. Her eyes are cut formidably up, anticipating the next part of the journey. The wind illustrates the peril of the journey and is a metaphor for the intense opposition Tubman faced.”
Wofford created the piece following a commission request for a private building in Dallas, Texas, but when photos of the sculpture went viral he decided that more people should have a chance to see the piece. So, he made a copy.
“We were inspired after that social media explosion to put together a traveling monument to access everyone,” he said. “Harriett Tubman to me is the quintessential American hero and the type of figure that should be in our public squares.”
The traveling exhibit debuted in February at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama — months before the summer protests that launched a nationwide debate as to the role of public art in society. Since February, the statue has been to the Harriet Tubman Museum in Cape May, New Jersey; the courthouse in Tubman’s hometown of Cambridge, Maryland; and then to its current home in New York.
The sculpture proposal met with unanimous approval from town board members, who for much of the year have been dealing with a more contentious statue-related issue. In July, the board voted 3-2 to ask county commissioners to remove a prominently displayed Confederate soldier statue from town limits, a request that county commissioners denied Aug. 4 in a 4-1 vote. However, town commissioners were uniformly supportive of the NAACP’s request.
“I would feel honored to have a sculpture of that caliber in our county and in our town,” said Mayor Lynda Sossamon.
The Jackson County NAACP has been around since 2015, and Baker said that she would “wager a bet that this project Journey to Freedom is the biggest, most exciting opportunity we’ve had in our first five years.” The organization has two grant proposals underway in hopes of funding rental, cleaning, insurance and surveillance for the statue.
Wofford is charging locations $2,000 per month to display the statue, a purposely low amount designed to give access to smaller communities, like Sylva. The money goes to pay back the loan used to fund the cast — 2,400-pound bronze sculptures aren’t cheap. In addition to statue rental, the NAACP will have to pay for the statue to be shipped from its previous location as well as $60 per month for insurance. The organization is also budgeting for a security camera as well as $500 to clean the statue, should that be necessary.
Baker applauded the town’s offer of Bridge Park as the location for the installation. Western Carolina University’s Intercultural Affairs Department would plan events and activities around the sculpture’s arrival to extend its influence well past its physical presence in the county, Baker said, and Bridge Park is the perfect place for that.
Originally from Georgia, Wofford moved to North Carolina in 2002 after a career at the forefront of the makeup effects industry in Hollywood, California. His work earned him an Emmy from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences as well as an Academy Award. Today, he pursues sculpture full-time from his studio in Cashiers.
The town has been trying for years to increase displays of public art in the downtown area, creating a public art committee in 2017 for that purpose. The committee had its first success in 2018, when a $10,000 grant from Jackson County funded a 22-by-53-foot mural on the side of Mill Street’s Ward’s Plumbing and Heating building, but the town board later decided to disband the committee and seat public art efforts under the auspices of the Main Street Sylva Association instead.