Capturing an Essence

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On Jan. 16th I braved the frigid temps and walked from my office at the Indiana State Museum to attend the 23rd Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Celebration at the Indiana Statehouse. It was standing room only with attendees that included Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, U.S. Rep. Andre Carson, legislatures from both sides of the aisle and an attentive public.

I didn't need an invitation to attend, but I was there in somewhat of an official capacity; representing the Indiana State Museum and my role in one part of the day's festivities.

James Sidney Hinton
  • James Sidney Hinton

On this day, in conjunction with the Dr. King celebration, two works of art were to be unveiled to the public -- a perfect day to mark the occasion. After years of planning, the official statehouse bronze busts of U.S. Rep. Julia Carson and the former State Rep. James Sidney Hinton (elected in 1880) would be revealed to the public, taking their rightful places among other important figures in Indiana history. Hinton was the first African-American to be elected to the General Assembly, and more than a century later, Julia Carson was the first African-American woman to represent the city in Congress. 

According to Pam Bennett, director of the Indiana Historical Bureau, this artistic initiative started back in 2007 with broad bipartisan support. For my part, I was recruited to help select the artist commissioned to create the two portraits. Bennett assembled an all-volunteer team of jurors from the local community to assist in reviewing the artists' requests for qualifications and eventually select the appropriate one among them. It was a national call, with several highly qualified applicants vying for the honor. The selection committee landed on North Carolina sculptor, Jon Hair, to craft both portraits.

The artist selection process was a public endeavor, and from my personal experience, was extremely well organized, transparent and successful. We looked at outstanding examples of work by many gifted artists, and then carefully and thoughtfully arrived at a consensus on Hair. For me, it was more than just finding someone who could capture a likeness of these two important individuals; it was imperative that the artist capture their essence as well.

Julia Carson
  • Julia Carson

For this project, the artist would face two very different challenges in crafting an image that would best represent and forever immortalize his subjects. With Hinton it was portraying someone unfamiliar; with Carson it was portraying someone very well-known. The only context the artist had to work from for Hinton was a small, formal, black-and-white image of the man, which would require much interpretation. Conversely, Carson was a very familiar face; an expression full of life and personality.

Before the unveiling I was as anxious as everyone else -- I hadn't seen the finished versions.

First, Rep. James Hinton was unveiled. True to the image in the photograph, the bust was formal, dignified and presented a man of strong conviction -- very much in line with the testimonials that preceded his unveiling.  Next was U.S. Rep. Julia Carson. The audience reaction was immediate and approving. Hair didn't take the conservative approach. Instead, he rendered his subject true to form -- a beaming Julia Carson, a well-recognized face filled with warmth, confidence and sincerity. There's no mistaking this image -- it could only be that of Julia Carson.   

When you hire an artist to create a portrait of a person, it can be a roll of the dice. You have to trust the artist and your decision that you've hired the right person to do the job. Many of the portraits on display in the statehouse are very formal and traditional in style. Hinton's bust fits that mold, and rightfully so. But with Carson, to capture her essence, Hair gave us exactly what we wanted. Like Carson herself, this bust is one of a kind.

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