This morning, the Victims of Communism Memorial will become a permanent part of the Washington, D.C. landscape, at a formal dedication ceremony two blocks from Union Station. The centerpiece of the memorial is the “Goddess of Democracy,” a statue based upon the one built by Chinese students at Tiananmen Square in 1989. NR’s John J. Miller recently talked to Thomas Marsh, the sculptor behind the memorial:
John J. Miller: Why is the “Goddess of Democracy” a fitting symbol for the memorial?
Thomas Marsh: The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation chose that sculptural image as the central symbol because it is widely recognized as standing for the ideals of democracy and liberty. The students who first fashioned the 40-foot-high rough plaster sculpture wished to make a direct reference to our Statue of Liberty. Though the Democracy statue is noticeably different, the similarities are significant. One can find photos of the original in Tiananmen Square, with the statue’s name clearly printed in Chinese characters: Statue of Democracy. (“Goddess of Democracy” emerged for some reason in the news, and the statue has been identified as such ever since.) The Democracy statue is unambiguous in its meaning: It stands for man against the State. Specifically, it stood and stands for man against the most brutal tyranny ever devised, communism. In fact, the students in Tiananmen Square placed the statue such that it directly confronted a gigantic portrait of Mao Zedong.
Miller: How did you become involved with the Victims of Communism Memorial?
Marsh: In July 2003, Jay Katzen (now with the Peace Corps) called me at home in rural Santa Rosa, California. He said Carl Gershman of the National Endowment for Democracy had recommended me as a sculptor who would be able to work with the organization Mr. Katzen headed at the time, the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, to build their memorial. Because of my history of having worked with the Democracy Statue image (including providing small scale versions to NED for their annual awards, and having been the primary sculptor and co-leader of the project to place a “Goddess of Democracy” in San Francisco) I was sought out as an appropriate artist to design this memorial. When Lee Edwards took over as president of the VOC Memorial Foundation in early 2004, we began our work in earnest.
Miller: You didn’t charge the memorial foundation a fee for your services as a sculptor. Don’t you need to make a living?
Marsh: Though I don’t come from a wealthy background and I’ve really never known financial freedom, I do make a living as an artist, and I am my family’s breadwinner. In 1989 when I witnessed the brutalities (via television and print news) of the Tiananmen massacre, I vowed to rebuild the statue, and to never profit from that act. I feel it is wrong to make money from human suffering. I knew that if that sculptural image recreated from my hand could generate money, that such money ought to go to the cause for which those students and citizens died: the twin ideals of democracy and liberty (fraternal twins).
Miller: How long does it take to create one of your statues?
Marsh: Naturally that varies depending on the size and complexity of the statue. A fairly good estimate would be ten to twelve months for a life-size figure. I’m able to produce a bronze statue fairly quickly because of a marvelous working relationship with Nordhammer Foundry in California.
Miller: Your work is figurative rather than abstract, the way a lot of memorial art has become ever since Maya Lin designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. What do you make of this trend?
Marsh: All good art representational art throughout history is, in a structural sense, abstract. It is a synthesis of realism and abstraction. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is fundamentally architectural, thus it is abstract by its very nature. I don’t view it at all in conflict with figurative, representational art. I think it is a very fitting and mournfully elegant memorial. Yes, there has been a trend toward abstract public sculpture and away from figurative public sculpture since the mid-20th century. I think that was inevitable, given the (temporary) dominance of expression theory over classical ideals, a power which manifested itself as Modernism. But Modernism is dying, perhaps in its death throes, because the “shock of the new” no longer shocks and originality alone never really was a sound basis for aesthetic value. Originality, though important, could not function long as the fundamental criterion for artistic excellence, as it did during the era of Modernism. Although the branch of modern art which emphasizes abstraction and pure form has much to be said for it, I feel the emerging primary role of art in human life will be personal and social transformation. I view the Democracy statue as a moving example of this kind of art. It certainly was not an act of self-expression.
Miller: You’re a semi-finalist to become the sculptor of a Barbara Jordan statue at the University of Texas at Austin. How have you tried to bring her to life?
Marsh: Barbara was such a powerful person during her time in Congress, and most Americans who are old enough to remember her likely recall her great oratorical abilities her razor-sharp intellect, and her striking presence. From the point of view of Republicans, she was a liberal in the opposition. But from the point of view of liberal Democrats, she was regarded as a moderate. In fact, she was motivated by the words of our founding, and was as patriotic as any American could be. She fought for and was an example of ethics in public life. She was a passionate defender of the U.S. Constitution. She was an advocate of equality, civil rights, justice, and the dignity of the human person. For conservatives, she missed the mark somewhat because of her Rawlsian understanding of justice. But that in no way diminishes her patriotism and her passionate work on behalf of those who had been left out of America’s promise.
In her last years, and for nearly three times the amount of time she spent in Congress, she was a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. She was a beloved and inspiring teacher. She also suffered in those years from a serious physical disability. So my proposed statue for the UT campus portrays her older (of her UT era) but still powerful, standing, speaking and teaching, and symbolically transcending her disability.
Miller: If you could win a commission for a statue of anybody, living or dead, who would it be and how would you portray this person?
Marsh: For a number of years I have wanted to do a life size or slightly larger figure of the Virgin Mary. I have been commissioned in the past to portray her in relief sculpture as a Pieta, but not yet as a figure in the round. It would be wonderful to portray her as a Madonna with the infant Jesus, though I’d also love to portray her as Queen of Heaven.
Miller: What advice do you have for a young person who would like to become a professional sculptor?
Marsh: For a young person who wishes to become a figurative sculptor, it is vital to recognize these things:
You must have a long period of disciplined training, and be willing to take criticism from master artists in your formation.
You must be willing to endure financial hardship, because our media driven secular culture rewards the decadent, temporary, and superficial; and impedes the enduring aesthetic values of civilization, such as beauty and form.
You must be willing to endure ridicule or ostracism of your ideals by the entrenched Modernists in the academic world and the art world (museums, galleries, and critics).
You must be able to transcend self-doubt when you seem to have no hope left.
You need religious faith, and must recognize that God has blessed you with a gift that is needed by man.
Finally, because you love this work, you must work harder than you ever imagined possible, and never entertain the thought of giving up.