Birmingham-born sculptor Elizabeth MacQueen is now working six days a week to meet the deadline to put a bronze monument in Birmingham in honor of the four girls who died in the September 15, 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
As fundraising has hit the halfway mark, MacQueen — who is working on the monument in Berkeley, California, with a team of assistants — described the pace as “going, going, going.
“I have given my word that I will try and get these four pieces finished and installed by the 50th anniversary,” MacQueen said.
The four pieces refer to bronze, life-size statues of the four slain girls: Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie MaeCollins, each of whom was 14 years old, and Denise McNair, who was 11. The statues will make up the bulk of the monument, which will be on a corner stretch of sidewalk alongside Kelly Ingram Park, across from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and diagonally across from the Sixteenth Street church.
“The sidewalk is very broad there on the corner,” said Birmingham attorney Chervis Isom. “It’s a much better site than within the park.”
Isom is a founding member of Four Spirits Inc., the nonprofit committee that organized last year to get a monument in Kelly Ingram. The park, west of downtown, was the scene of mass demonstrations and marches during the pivotal civil rights year for Birmingham, 1963, as well as responses from authorities that included the use of police dogs and blasts of water from fire hoses. Sculptures throughout the park commemorate those events, but there is no standing memorial to the four girls, who died in a Ku Klux Klan bomb blast as they were getting ready for a Sunday service.
The price tag for the memorial is $250,000 and Isom said fundraising “is going well. We are actively reaching out to foundations and having some success.”
The fiscal agent handling contributions to the Four Spirits project is the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham. “We’re feeling confident, we’re about halfway there,” said Marguerite Johnson, the foundation’s senior vice president of grants and initiatives. Johnson said the gifts and pledges include as little as $5 from an out-of-state donor to much larger sums of $25,000 each from the foundation, the City of Birmingham and United Way of Central Alabama Inc.
The Four Spirits project takes its name from the title of Birmingham native Sena Jeter Naslund’s 2003 novel about the events of 1963. MacQueen, who grew up in Mountain Brook, was the only female of six artists who sent in a submission in response to ads in Weld requesting proposals and her proposal was selected in December. She happened to be home visiting when a friend showed her the Weld ad, and she just managed to meet the application deadline.
Now, with the help of a team of assistants, MacQueen is pushing to meet an even more important deadline – that of the 50th anniversary of the bombing. Deadlines can help artists focus, but they also can carry a weight that is not always easily borne. For MacQueen, that weight has included having to think about the bombing as she goes about her work day.
Using what she described as a shell casting process, MacQueen said she and team members should be working “six days a week for the next two months until we are finished with the pieces in clay, one by one.” Once enough clay is in place on an armature or framework, MacQueen will do her sculpting. Then a mould is made of each piece, and a layer of microcrystalline wax goes into each mould to make a wax casting. The casting is tweaked and separated from the mould. Then, over several days, it is dipped several times in a ceramic shell mixture so it will have a hard shell layer.
Once that layer is dry, it’s time for the piece to go into a steam-heated device called an autoclave, where high temperatures will burn out the wax. The ceramic shell is baked and hardened, and then the piece will be cast with molten bronze. To make a complete figure, various pieces will be welded together.
“We then go over them, check them and mark where we find errors made by nature,” MacQueen said. “These are corrected and the process continues.”
When it is finished, the sculpture will show the four girls on or around a bench. One of them, Denise McNair, is jumping to touch six doves that are heading skyward, while Addie Mae Collins is fixing the bow at the back of Denise’s dress. Cynthia Wesley is depicted as reading her favorite book, possibly the Bible, while Carole Robertson is walking away but looking back toward her friends and gesturing, as if to tell them it’s time for the church service.
The doves not only represent the lives of the four girls but also two other lives lost on the day of the bombing in separate, tragic incidents – those of Virgil Ware and Johnny Robinson. Ware, 13, was shot by a white teen as he was riding on the handlebars of his brother’s bicycle. Robinson, 16, was shot in the back by a police officer. Published accounts state he and other youths had been throwing rocks at a car displaying a Confederate flag.
Those wishing to donate to the Four Spirits project can do so online through the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham. You also can mail donations to the foundation at 2100 First Avenue North, Suite 700, Birmingham AL 35203-4223. Be sure to put “Four Spirits” on the check’s memo line.