National Portrait Gallery Highlights Civil Rights Pioneer

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

IN the nation's capital where Rosa Parks was recently honored, hard hat workers, engineers, fast food servers all recognized her name. Even children in the third grade lit up, and chimed ``That's the lady who said `It's no fair.''' Several months ago, in Washington's National Portrait Gallery, in a room covered with namesake pink roses, Mrs. Parks listened modestly as politicians, civil rights leaders - including Coretta Scott King - and Washington elite of every ideological persuasion, sang her praises.She spoke eloquently herself as a her portrait in bronze was dedicated in the gallery to sit alongside other significant Americans.

That honor was not nearly as impressive as the person herself. The understated yet immensely dynamic Rosa Parks has, over the years, been mythologized and become a part of the nation's folklore. Her act of defiance when asked to give up her seat to a white person on a segregated bus gave birth to the nation's first organized resistance to segregation.

It is fitting that the artist commissioned to sculpt the bronze likeness of Parks - Los Angeles-based sculptor Artis Lane - will be the first black woman artist to have work included in the National Gallery.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

``I was a young black female artist in the '50s when Rosa Parks became a civil rights symbol overnight. I was a woman, and a minority, trying to make it as a fine artist, and it was discouraging.... We were were supposed to be domestics back then, not sculptors,'' recalls Ms. Lane.

Lane's career has included making portraits of Henry Kissinger, Barbara Bush, Cary Grant, Sidney Poitier, and others. But Lane speaks of Parks with special admiration.

``What immediately struck me about Mrs. Parks was that never did a negative or hateful word come her mouth,'' Lane says.

The sculptor has succeeded in capturing the indomitable spirit of Parks in the portrait. She is depicted as she looks today, Lane says, because Parks's influence and her mark on history is timeless.

``During the student demonstrations in China and when the Berlin Wall came down, those people sang `We Shall Overcome;' it seems to me that Rosa's influence will exist wherever people are fighting for equal rights.''

In person, Parks has a certain animated light that comes through her eyes, very much as she did when her face was splashed across periodicals as the seamstress that defied Southern law.

When asked if the portrait reminded her of the events of that day she spent in the Alabama jail, Parks gets a certain twinkle in her eye and responds, not missing a beat: ``I remember a bit more clearly the day many, many rough months later when National Guardsmen stood by as blacks were allowed to board desegregated buses.

``I remember the face of the bus driver watching us get on his bus and sit where we pleased.... He was also the same bus driver that had me arrested when I finally said I would not get up.... I guess we are both symbols of change.''

In creating the likeness of Parks, Lane says she took a few artistic liberties: ``Mrs. Parks wears her long silver hair pushed back, and when she came to my studio I asked her to braid it and pile it on her head like a tiara. I worked the hair in a very sketchy indefinite fashion so that it barely suggests a crown or an aura, my symbol for a regalness that Parks radiates.... I made the bust slightly larger than life size, so that the viewer is pulled right into those eyes, that brow and jaw, all of whic h convey the most uncanny combination of tenderness and conviction.''

The other quality that comes through in this portrait is a focus that has motivated Parks's three decades of civil rights advocacy.

``I wanted an intense, intelligent gaze that would counteract all the stereotypes and clich'es that describe Mrs. Parks's behavior on that bus as an accidental gesture by a tired black worker or a defiant gesture by someone stirring up trouble. It was something spontaneous, but it was also intelligent and considered and I wanted all those qualities to come through,'' says Lane.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...