The last time Congress commissioned a statue for the U.S. Capitol, Ulysses S. Grant was president, the first cable cars were making their way up San Francisco streets, and Levi Strauss patented blue jeans.
When President Barack Obama unveiled the sculpture of Rosa Parks this past February, it not only was the first commissioned statue for the site in 140 years, but Parks became the first African-American woman to have her likeness in Statuary Hall. It appears alongside such notables as Andrew Jackson, Brigham Young and Helen Keller.
On Dec. 1, 1955, a bus conductor in Montgomery, Ala., ordered Parks to give up her seat on a public bus so white passengers could be seated. Parks refused to stand up and remained in her seat. She was quickly arrested.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called her action “the spark that ignited the modern civil rights movement.”
Parks’ bronze-and-granite statue is close to 9 feet tall. In a departure from others in Statuary Hall, it features a seated figure.
“She made a stand by sitting,” said Los Angeles-based sculptor Eugene Daub, 70. “This was more about a quiet, heroic [act] that was performed and a solid, rooted pose.”
Daub and co-designer Rob Firmin entered a 2008 competition managed by the National Endowment for the Arts and were selected from among more than 100 entries. The entry was a maquette, a 24-inch model in clay created after historical research.
“If somebody that you’re sculpting isn’t around anymore, you need every angle that you can find,” said Daub. “Profiles are especially hard to find because who ever saves profiles of themselves. I just had to go through hundreds of images, even of her in a courtroom, trying to find her turning around, to get a good profile.”
Daub has been a sculptor for more than 30 years. His previous commissions include Harvey Milk, young Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. For the Rosa Parks figure, Daub worked out composition issues in the two-foot model and refined the details in clay for the final figure. He pointed out that the sculpture is missing a key element of Parks’ story.
“People might not recognize immediately that there is no bus seat,” said Daub. “There’s just a form that she’s emerging from. We thought that a rail or cushions would be seen as a distraction.”
To capture the essence of a 42-year-old, mid-century, African-American woman, Daub said he did what actors often do.
“It’s a little like method acting,” he said. “How would I sit if I want to invoke determination, steadfastness and vision? You just have to develop it and keep moving it around until it begins to happen.
“In some way, sitting poses are very un-heroic poses,” Daub added. “We are used to hero poses being open stances and prideful. She’s sitting holding her purse on her lap and just determined not to be moved, not to give up this seat to yield to injustice.”