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Creating Community and Connection through Creating Public Art

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In July of 2015, I was hired as the first full-time Public Art Coordinator for the City of Richmond, VA. On my second day on the job, I was handed a stack of papers and given the phone number of sculptor Toby Mendez, who had been selected to create the Maggie Walker monument.

To be honest, I had to get acquainted with who Maggie Walker was, and along the journey to having her legacy celebrated through artwork, I found myself surrounded by passionate community members who had been working for almost 20 years to have her properly memorialized. Working with Toby through this process to get her completed was incredible, as he was diligent about making sure all the voices were heard.

I now call some of those people dear friends. But when I started working on the Maggie Walker project, I had no idea of the magnitude and importance of the project, nor its national significance and impact it would have upon our community (and in connecting our community).

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The community celebration at the unveiling of the Maggie L. Walker monument in Richmond. Photo by Shannon Castleman, Oakwood Arts.

Maggie Walker was an entrepreneur, leader, educator, mother, and activist. She was the first African American woman to start a bank in the early 1900s—in Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy. She was a fierce rebel who, despite some challenging circumstances, persisted and persevered even as she was confined to a wheelchair in the later part of her life.

As I dug into her history by spending time in the archives of a local museum and her home, which is now a National Parks Historic Site, it became apparent this woman was truly astounding. I felt a kindred spirit in someone who had a house full of books and a grand piano in her living room. Maggie Walker still inspires the community of people in Richmond, whether they are graduates of the high school named after her, or just people who admire the work she did to charter a bank, create a newspaper, and open a store that allowed African Americans the dignity of trying on clothes to purchase in the Jim Crow South of the 1920s.

It took two decades to take the Maggie Walker statue from idea to reality. When I was asked at what point the city got the community involved in the process of recognizing her, I literally laughed out loud knowing it was the other way around. It was the community that got the city involved to honor this amazing woman. Furthermore, it was the relentless community advocacy by a handful of dedicated people who recognized how much Maggie Walker had done for Richmond and our community that made this project become a reality.

Installing the Maggie L. Walker monument. Photo by Ellyn Parker.

I love all aspects of working with public art, using it to elevate and tell the stories of people, and to reflect the ideals and values of a community. I like the process of casting and fabricating sculptures, seeing a project go from renderings to reality, and watching a crane carefully lower in a piece of art to where it will be displayed. But even more than these tangible aspects, I love what I do because of everyone involved and affected, such as the moment of seeing the smiles of people as they learn or are inspired by art.

This project was challenging for many reasons, both in process and for sentiments related to some hot button issues, but the end result was more than creating a piece of bronze statuary. It was more because we told Maggie Walker’s story and created a sense of place by surrounding her statue with benches inscribed with details about her many accomplishments.

This is the first monument to an African American woman in Richmond; and beyond paying honor to her accomplishments and achievements, it was a way of bringing a voice to community members who have not always been represented. Toby and his crew installed the statue on July 8, 2017, on that same day a KKK march ravaged Charlottesville, only 45 minutes away. I felt chills as I watched her lowered from the crane onto the plaza, and as she rotated around in almost a complete circle once, as if surveying her surroundings on Broad Street where she once walked to work every day. I think she would have liked that we bolted her in that day.

Community leader Melvin Jones passes around a birthday card for Maggie Walker at the unveiling of her monument. Photo by Haley Harrington, Oakwood Arts.

A week later, on what would have been her 153rd birthday, we threw a grand birthday party for her and unveiled the statue. The event included speeches by her great granddaughter, our newly elected Mayor Levar Stoney, and the participation of hundreds of community members who were teary-eyed as we pulled the cover off her that day.

The cheering from the crowd as we unveiled the monument was one of those moments that can never be replicated, as we felt the sense of pride, persistence, and community love from so many who knew that this monument represents more than just the woman being honored. The enshrined Maggie Walker provides a reality of moving forward, of unifying, and telling another part of the history of Richmond.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney speaks at the unveiling of the Maggie L. Walker monument. Photo by John DiJulio, Oakwood Arts.

And now, when I walk by her statue, I can see the pride in people who stop to take pictures. I see community members feeling connections to each other and sensing the investment made into this place of memorial created with public art. My own motivations to work in the field of public art stem from the compelling need to create more beauty, joy, and connection in the world. In using the arts to tell our stories, and in the process of working together as a group to make a project happen, we find community connections as beautiful as the pieces of art themselves.

Richmond celebrates at the Maggie L. Walker monument unveiling. Photo by Amarise Carreras, Oakwood Arts.

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