Sculptor Fern Cunningham-Terry, creator of monumental public sculptures, comments on social issues behind the works of 19th-century sculptor Mary Edmonia Lewis. Both hold/held many public and private commissions. Both are of African-American and Native-American descent and this unique heritage figures in their sculptures - in different ways. Film by Roberto Mighty as part of his artist residency Online Exhibit at Mount Auburn Cemetery, 2014-2016.
An American In Rome
Mary Edmonia Lewis (ca. 1844 – 1907) was an American sculptor who worked for most of her career in Rome, Italy. She is the first woman of African-American and Native American heritage to achieve international fame and recognition as a sculptor in the fine arts world.
Lewis overcame incredible odds to become a celebrated international artist between the Civil War and the turn of the century.
On Monday, Feb 1st, Google honored Lewis with a “Google Doodle” homepage illustration.
“Hygeia”, Lewis’ only extant work of funerary sculpture, is at Mount Auburn Cemetery, a National Historic Landmark in Cambridge, MA.
Thanks to Meg Winslow, Curator of Historical Collections and Jenny Gilbert, Director of Institutional Advancement at Mount Auburn Cemetery for sharing their enthusiasm about Edmonia Lewis. Over two years, they relentlessly recommended that I include a piece about her and "Hygeia" in my earth.sky film/video installation. They also arranged for me to meet Lewis Scholar Marilyn Richardson. Marilyn generously shared with me her decades of research and discovery about Lewis.
Mary Edmonia Lewis’ life was stranger than fiction. Its improbable twists and turns led me to months of anguish around how to tell even a small part of her story in this medium...within a few minutes.
A towering figure among nineteenth century American and European artists, her narrative is mostly unknown in our time. She was brought to my attention by Mount Auburn staff members Meg Winslow and Jenny Gilbert, who were passionate about her history and how inspiring it could be to today’s audiences.
Lewis - who against all odds became an accomplished sculptor and inspirational figure for the post Civil War abolitionist movement - combined Native American, Caribbean and African-American heritage with European neoclassicism and Roman Catholic iconography - an original and uniquely American combination.
My work involved over a year of research; filming, photographing and recording sound around her funerary statue, “Hygeia”, over four seasons; researching and recording contemporary monologues from Lewis, Lydia Maria Child, Thomas Jefferson, Anna Maria Waterston and Frederika Bremer.
I am thankful for the opportunity to meet and be advised by Marilyn Richardson, the historian who found and authenticated Lewis’ greatest work, “The Death of Cleopatra” - and Lewis’ grave in England.
It was a pleasure working with Actors Dayenne Walters (Edmonia Lewis) and Souther (Lydia Maria Child) in their studio voice performances. I voiced Thomas Jefferson, contemporary reporters and officials, and a letter from activist Frederika Bremer to her friend, physician Harriot Kezia Hunt, a doctor interred at Mount Auburn who commissioned Lewis’ “Hygeia”. I also filmed sculptors Fern Cunningham-Terry and Karen Eutemey as Lewis' dreamlike 'artist hands'.
I am now developing a narrative feature film based on Edmonia Lewis' life and times.