Monday, August 20, 2012

A Thought or Two on Civic Art and Frontier Settlement


The city of Clarksburg, West Virginia is a small city of about 17,000 people and is the county seat of Harrison County.  It was established in 1785 and named after General George Rogers Clark of Revolutionary War fame.  When Clarksburg was founded and established as the county seat, Harrison County included a very large portion of present-day West Virginia and a large part of that land was still unsettled. 

Trappers and fur traders had been camping in the area of Clarksburg for at least 20 years before its founding and farmers had been felling trees and plowing fields for a good dozen years or so before the Clarksburg settlement was big enough to think of itself as anything other than a small outpost on the very big frontier.  At the time, the Clarksburg settlement was nominally part of Virginia, at least as far as laws determine which state is in charge of what territory, but, for all practical purposes,  it was The Frontier, and Mrs. Blogger’s ancestors were there (well, actually  – being “settlement-adverse” - they were a few miles to the south) with their axes, plows and seed corn.

In 1985, Clarksburg celebrated its two hundredth birthday. One thing that the organizers of the bicentennial celebration left behind for future generations was a sculpture in front of the Harrison County Court House. The sculpture, titled “The Immigrants”, was created by William D. Hopen of Sutton, Braxton County, West Virginia and stands in silent tribute all the many people who have called Clarksburg home during the past two centuries.

Public – or civic - art is important, especially in a country made up of many nationalities, races, religions and cultures.  It provides a point of cultural focus, a focal point for reflection and contemplation of things bigger than ourselves and, if done right, a “civic story.”

Tourists from all over the world come to the United States and seek out our grandest pieces of civic art, and, through them, learn about our national story.  The Lincoln Memorial.  Mount Rushmore.  The Statue of Liberty.  Cities throughout the United States abound with less well known examples of civic art that tell smaller, more localized and more detailed parts of our national story, like the Clarksburg, West Virginia sculpture in front of the court house.

Civic art calls out to be looked at, both from a distance and from close up.  It has a story to tell, and, at its best,  is designed to draw you ever closer to study the subtle details. That way, you will likely think more carefully about the more detailed parts of the story.

Here’s a view of the Hopen sculpture from the front, and from a distance:



You can tell right off that there’s a story being told here.  In fact, the story begins on the left side of the sculpture. Here’s what it looks like from the side, portraying the first people to live here:



As you move from left to right, you can see the faces changing and the immigrant story unfolding.  By the time you reach the far right, the figures represent the new European arrivals of the early 20th century.  [Note: Clarksburg hosts one of the largest Italian festivals in the United States.]  The figures are not meant to be specific individuals; rather, they are meant to represent the diverse types of people who come together to form communities over time.

Sometimes, you might miss a few details at first glance.  For example, I’m pretty sure that most folks miss the coal miner (see below) with his pick crawling out of the mine until they study the sculpture a bit more carefully.



 Of course, civic art reflects the time and place of its creation, with all its cultural baggage, telling us the story that its creators were commissioned to tell.  Not everyone’s story gets told correctly, and in some cases, there are stories that never get told at all.

“The Immigrants” tells us the classic story of West Virginia’s first settlers – native Americans, explorers, farmers, craftspeople and business folk – utilizing about 16 or 17 representative figures. 

But wait a minute - What’s missing here?  Frankly it’s a problem that I notice with a lot of civic art.  In fact, any genealogist will probably recognize it immediately. 

The tiny babe in arms notwithstanding, only two of the representational adult figures are women. That leaves a whole lot of the story of immigration and settlement untold and unremembered. 

And that's why we need to tell more stories.

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