DAYTONA BEACH — For nearly 10 years, Florida officials have been trudging through a painfully detailed process to replace one of the state’s two works of art in Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C.
The hope has been for Florida to send an 11-foot-tall marble statue of Mary McLeod Bethune to the Capitol building. But the decade-long attempt at getting that idea approved has meant strapping on a backpack laden with rule books and climbing a mountain of paperwork.
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Finally last month, those who have endured the journey found out the master sculptor chosen for the project has been given the official OK from Washington, D.C., to begin chiseling.
“I was thrilled,” said sculptor Nilda Comas. “I was very, very happy and relieved.”
“This is fabulous news!” said Nancy Lohman, head of the local committee that’s been trying to raise $550,000 for the project.
If all goes as hoped, the statue will be unveiled in the U.S. Capitol Statuary Hall Rotunda next summer on Bethune’s birthday, July 10.
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Comas was chosen for the project more than three years ago, and her patience was starting to wear thin as she saw more pages on the calendar turning. In a career spanning five decades, never has she waited so long to start working.
“The night before the announcement I couldn’t sleep,” said Comas, who lives and works in both Fort Lauderdale and Italy. “I thought, when is this going to happen?”
After years of being idled on the project, now she’s quickly making plans to hop on a plane and get to her studio in Pietrasanta, Italy. Her flight is scheduled for Oct. 17. Most Americans have been banned from traveling to Italy and other European countries since the coronavirus pandemic began, but Comas has permanent residency in Italy and can freely travel there and back.
When she arrives, she’ll have to quarantine in her Pietrasanta apartment for two weeks. Once she’s in the studio, she and her co-workers will all wear masks. Comas has lost eight friends both in the United States and Italy who were stricken with COVID-19, so she doesn’t mind being cautious.
“It’s very real for me,” she said. “I’m very careful.”
Waiting for her just outside her studio in the tiny 1,000-year-old town on the northern coast of Tuscany is a hulking piece of white marble that’s about 13 feet long and weighs several tons.
She’s already instructed experienced artisans at the studio to begin preparing and cutting the huge block that could be the last piece of marble that will ever be culled from the Tuscan quarry Michelangelo used for his masterpiece statue of David more than 500 years ago.
The artisans will cut out a 3-foot-tall base and leave the rest of the marble for the 8-foot-tall statue. The workers will form a hollow base to reduce the weight, and they’ll carefully measure everything to follow the instructions from the the Architect of the U.S. Capitol, a federal department that oversees that building.
High-tech equipment will be used to cut the base, and because the marble is so hard that will take three days of the machinery running day and night, Comas said.
“It can take months by hand,” she said.
Whatever method is used, an artist has to be very careful.
“You can’t make a mistake. You can’t chip anything,” she said.
Comas will help with the removal of the excess marble on the piece that will be used for the sculpture since she was an artisan for years. She’ll also bring in additional expert carvers to speed up things.
Comas has already made four clay models of the statue ranging from a foot tall to eight feet high.
“You do it that way to get more and more detail as you get bigger,” she said.
She has also made a plaster model. Neither the Architect of the Capitol nor the Library of Congress asked for any changes to the statue design, a high compliment to Comas.
The plan is to finish the sculpture by early May to allow enough time for it to travel by ship to the United States and be installed in the Capitol by July. But before the completed statue crosses the Atlantic Ocean, it will receive a traditional blessing ceremony.
“I understand there’s a very beautiful ceremony to bless any statue at the end of the process before it leaves the Pietrasanta studio,” Lohman said. “Priests will bless it in multiple languages, and there is often a choir.”
Lohman hopes to be at that blessing ceremony.
‘I’m in love with her’
Comas said she’s wrapping up some reliefs she’s done in a Miami basilica, so the timing should work well for her to travel abroad at the end of next week. She said she should be able to finish by May.
Her studio has two robots that could help with carving, but she said she wants to do it “the old-fashioned way.” Robots can make mistakes, big mistakes. But she also wants to savor the experience.
“We have the most precious piece of marble,” she said, noting she’s been offered three times what she paid for it. “It’s the last piece that comes out of Michelangelo’s cave.”
While she’s been waiting for an answer on the statue project, Comas has used the time to learn everything she can about the trailblazing educator, stateswoman, feminist and civil rights activist. She visited the log cabin in Mayesville, S.C., where Bethune was born in 1875, met Bethune family members, read up on her at the Library of Congress, listened to her audio recordings and looked at nearly 300 photos.
Sheer grit powered Bethune to educate herself and others against all odds. She was the 15th of 17 children born to former slaves in South Carolina.
After she got married and moved to Florida, Bethune used $1.50 to start a small school for African American girls that evolved into what is now Bethune-Cookman University.
In an era of blatant racism and segregation, Bethune opened a hospital for Blacks on the property now covered by the B-CU campus and created a beach for Blacks south of New Smyrna Beach.
Bethune went on to become the only African American woman to help the U.S. delegation that created the United Nations charter. She became an advisor to U.S. presidents, including Franklin D. Roosevelt. She also created the National Council of Negro Women, directed the Office of Minority Affairs in the National Youth Administration, and became a general in the Women’s Army for the National Defense.
“I’m in love with her,” Comas said.
‘The highest honor’
Comas is anxious to get back to the studio where she has worked for 27 years, a special place steeped in tradition that has the only copy of the David statue done in plaster. She returned to the United States last November expecting to go back to Italy in February, and then the coronavirus pandemic exploded in that country.
Now she can’t wait to start the Bethune statue, which will be seen by people from all over the world who visit Washington, D.C. The 65-year-old sculptor still clearly remembers visiting Statuary Hall for the first time in 1973, when she was 18.
“I looked around and said it must be so great to have a statue in here,” Comas said. “I thought about that moment when I was chosen to do the work.”
Comas will also create a bronze statue of Bethune that will stand in Daytona Beach’s Riverfront Park looking west toward Mary McLeod Bethune Boulevard. Comas noted that most American sculptors only work in bronze because sculpting in marble usually means going to Italy for proper training. There has been a bronze sculpture of Bethune in Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Park since 1974.
Comas feels fated to create a lasting and beautiful tribute to a woman who soared above the racism and sexism of her lifetime. Bethune died in 1955, the year Comas was born. The Puerto Rican native has spent the past six decades growing as an artist and building an esteemed career.
“It’s taken me a lifetime to prepare for this job,” Comas said.
The societal historic moment also isn’t lost on Comas. Bethune’s statue will be the first a state has chosen to depict a Black person, male or female, inside Statuary Hall.
“It has become a very, very important statue,” Comas said. “She’s so deserving of this the more I know about her.”
Some people have asked why she’s using white marble to commemorate a Black person.
“White marble is the highest honor,” Comas said. “She deserves that.”