In a year, Abraham Lincoln will find himself in the presence of an old friend, Frederick Douglass, brought to life by Bruce Wolfe.
The California-native artist will sculpt the much-anticipated statue, due for completion in August, of the famed abolitionist and writer for Hillsdale’s Liberty Walk. Wolfe and the college finalized the design Tuesday.
A committee of faculty members looked at designs from a number of sculptors over a period of five months for the progressing Douglass sculpture to be added among other historic fighters for freedom. The committee made their decision on Wolfe in May.
“We thought he’d be a good fit for Douglass. He showed real passion for the subject itself, which comes into play,” Michael Harner, chief staff officer for the President’s Office told the Collegian.
Wolfe has a personal connection to the project, being the great-great-grandson of Stephen Bovell Shelledy, an abolitionist “buddy” of Abraham Lincoln who also knew Douglass well, the sculptor said.
The 74-year-old “conservative artist” is not new to the Hillsdale sphere. He created the only statue of Margaret Thatcher in North America, which rests outside the Strosacker Science Building after its dedication in 2008.
“We have a history. It wasn’t a major factor point in it. It was a starting point, but if you know somebody, you talk to them,” Harner said. “He put forth some stuff we really liked.”
Nonetheless, a combination of Wolfe’s history with the college, spirit for the project, and design ideas won him the opportunity.
“We’ve had a number of ideas put forward to us by a number of artists, and in the end, his were the most appealing,” Harner said.
Wolfe has sculpted for 40 years, is a fellow for the National Sculptor Society, and received first place for the National Sculpture Society’s 2014 Members Only Sculpture Competition.
The design for the forthcoming statue of Douglass took the entire summer to finish as Wolfe suggested several variations.
“We’ve gone back and forth on a number of proposals,” Harner explained. “They’re all sort of similar, but getting that last thing the way we want it…he’s working on it.”
A photo, obtained by the college in 2004, from Douglass’ first visit to Hillsdale in 1863 depicts the famed abolitionist sitting in a chair.
The sculptor, however, worries the posture does not exude the mystique he hopes to convey with Douglass.
“He saw slavery as a shackling of a man’s mind as well as his body. He was there first hand,” Wolfe said. “I’ve read a little of him. He’s hard to read for me, but he seems pretty angry. If we could get him looking not angry, but we need a pose that’s not just looking like a toy soldier… I’m trying to bring to the college some movement, some humanity to the guy.”
Another “point of view” Wolfe has considered is Douglass holding a piece of paper because of his writing.
“Body language in a statue is the only thing that shows a man’s personality,” Wolfe said.
The selection of a pose is made more difficult than some of Wolfe’s other projects. Unlike when sculpting Thatcher – alive when Wolfe carved her, allowing him to experience her “velvet fist” power in her presence – Wolfe must rely on old photographs to depict Douglass’ clothing and face shape correctly.
“It’s like a writer; you need some material to write from,” Wolfe explained. “To write something interesting, you need some truth. That’s what I’m looking for: truth.”
The larger-than-life, approximately 7‑feet statue will stand between Lane and Kendall across from Lincoln, completing the Civil War section of the sculpture initiative.
“We’ve always wanted to do a Douglass statue — since the Liberty Walk project was underway,” Harner said. “We’re excited about it.”
Its completion next year coincides with the establishment of a scholarship that shares the abolitionist’s name.
“To try to get the Douglass statue done in time with the scholarship program seemed to be a good aim,” Harner said.
According to Financial Aid Director and Student Records Rich Moeggenberg, the scholarship targets underprivileged students from inner cities, fitting for Douglass who rose to prominence though born in the most difficult of circumstances: in slavery.
“Douglass’ role in articulating the role of man’s nature that we are all created equal and in keeping with tenants on which the country was created” puts him amongst leaders such as Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington, Harner said.
Even more so, however, the statue will represent a part of the history of Hillsdale College.
“We’re a Civil War college; that’s front and center with us,” Harner said. “The key founding figures of the college were those friends of Lincoln who ended being the governor of the state of Michigan and lieutenant governors and generals, and the service of our students in the war, Douglass speaking here…There’s a connection there.”