Alabama commission greenlights State Capitol statue of Helen Keller
Women’s Tribute Statue Commission to conduct final review of Rosa Parks statue in December
Helen Keller, a writer, educator and advocate for the disabled, holds a Braille volume in a library surrounded by shelves containing books and decorative figurines in a 1956 portrait. A childhood illness left Keller, a native of Tuscumbia, blind and deaf. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
A state commission Tuesday approved a contract to place a statue of disability rights activist Hellen Keller on the grounds of the Alabama State Capitol.
The Women’s Tribute Statue Commission chose sculptor Jay Warren, based in Oregon, one of three finalists chosen from 24 applications. Warren has designed statues of historical figures around the country, including statues of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Congressman John Lewis in New Jersey and Medger Evans in Mississippi. Warren also designed the Emancipation and Freedom Monument in Virginia.
“Mr. Warren is a delightful artist. I think you’re all going to enjoy working with him,” said Catie Marie Niolet, a Birmingham-based lawyer representing the commission.
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The Alabama Legislature in 2019 approved the installation of statues of Keller and Parks on the Alabama State Capitol grounds, the first women to be so honored. Funding for the Parks statue was secured first.
But the source of the money to build the Keller statue, expected to cost almost $300,000 ($245,000 for the sculptor and $50,000 for site preparation), was not clear earlier this year.
In the spring, the Alabama Legislature approved HB 125, a supplemental appropriations bill sponsored by Rep. Rex Reynolds, R-Huntsville, and spearheaded by Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, that allocated $200,000 towards the Keller statue. The commission is also accepting donations for the statue.
“The money that has been appropriated over the years can now be used for the Helen Keller sculpture, and the Rosa Parks sculpture is, of course, fully funded,” Niolet said. “So that’s great.”
The commission also received an update Tuesday on the Parks statue from Julia Knight, a sculptor from Decatur, Georgia designing it. . The commission approved a working model of the monument at its previous meeting in April.
The foundry could take about six months to complete the bronze statue. The statue could be unveiled by the middle of next year, though it is not known when it will be ready for installation.
Knight presented the final model, about nine and a half feet and about 1,100 pounds worth or clay, which will be voted on by the commission in December. The final model still needs work, Knight said, with the body proportions still needed to be checked.
Knight said “certain anatomical measurements have not been verified” and said that’s why she currently looked “clunky.” Knight also said Parks’ head needed more work before December’s review.
“It’s taken us a good five weeks to get this much clay moved around and to establish the legs, establish the skirt,” she said. Knight said the statue won’t look clunky once she finishes it.
The Parks statue received a $300,000 grant from the Alabama Power Foundation, which can’t be used for the Keller statue but will likely be used for ongoing maintenance.
The total cost for both statues is expected to be about $611,000. The commission has raised about $700,000 for the statues. Remaining money will pay for any additional costs.
“As we’re moving along, I think we seem to be in pretty good shape, it appears, but if we see anything along, then we would try to address it during this session as well,” Hall said at the commission meeting.
The Parks statue will show the civil rights activist standing on a platform, facing those coming up the stairs to the Capitol. Parks will gaze upwards, symbolizing her courage and determination.
The statue will face North Bainbridge Street at a diagonal angle. According to the proposal, the statue of Parks will be nine feet high and stand on a six-foot tall granite podium.
Parks, whose arrest on a Montgomery city bus in 1955 sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the modern civil rights movement, will be depicted stepping onto a platform facing North Bainbridge Street.
A seamstress and longtime civil rights activist, Parks boarded a segregated Montgomery bus on Dec. 1, 1955 and refused to give her seat to a white person. Parks’ arrest led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and kicked off the modern Civil Rights Movement.
The current model shows the wind blowing behind Parks’ coat, which Knight said in a previous meeting is meant to symbolize “freedom, blowing in the wind flying up, not restricted.”
Montgomery’s Court Square, where Parks caught the bus on Dec. 1, 1955, features a life-size statue of Parks. A statue of Parks also resides in the U.S. Capitol.
Keller, an advocate for disability rights, became deaf and blind at 19 months. She overcame substantial challenges, becoming a symbol of inspiration for many. Keller’s work laid the foundation for the disability rights movement, leading to advancements in accessibility and inclusion.
Updated at 9:25 a.m. to correct that the statue of Keller will be on the grounds of the Alabama State Capitol, not on top of it.
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