By Emma Castleberry
The traveling sculpture Harriet Tubman: The Journey to Freedom, by Wesley Wofford, will be on display in Sylva from September 20 until mid-December. “Visiting this sculpture in Sylva is more than a drive-by experience,” says Dr. Marsha Lee Baker of the Harriet Tubman Sculpture Planning Committee. “Individuals and groups will be able to stand next to it, touch it, walk around it and sit by and with it.” Visitors can scan a QR code at the site to access orientation tours, and geotours to key local historical sites will also be available.
The sculpture is an artist print of a commissioned sculpture created by Wofford for a private building in Dallas, TX. The sculpture depicts Tubman, who led enslaved people to freedom on the Underground Railroad, holding the hand of a small child as they run together. Wofford always begins his sculpture with historical research, which presented a challenge for this particular work. “There were only a few known pictures of Harriet Tubman,” he says. Once Wofford has designed the maquette, a small preliminary model, he then works on a third-scale model, and, finally, the full-size piece. The process takes about 18 months.
The importance of a traveling artist print became apparent after Wofford shared the original sculpture on social media. “We never anticipated the reaction we received,” he says. “The sculpture’s messaging resonated so well with the public that we felt we needed to build a traveling exhibition to further the dialogue.”
The artist print is an exact second bronze pour from the original mold of the sculpture, but is slightly different from the original. “The traveling Journey to Freedom was built to be transportable with a corten steel base already attached to the sculpture,” Wofford says. “The patina has more rust colors incorporated into the bronze to match the base.”
Wofford’s wife and studio director, Odyssey, has collaborated with partners to bring Journey to Freedom to locations all over the US. The Jackson County NC NAACP Branch 54AB spearheaded the effort to bring the sculpture to Sylva, finding financial support through grants and local partnerships.
“Through the installation of this sculpture in Sylva, our branch seeks to facilitate cultural understanding, create space for dialogue and share traditions that represent a diverse community,” says branch president Dana Murray Patterson. Part of that dialogue will certainly address the differences between the artist and his subject. “As we study any work of art, sooner or later we want to know about the artist, and then we begin studying the relationship of created and creator,” says Baker. “We also place it in historical as well as contemporary contexts. A 21st-century white man’s sculpture of a 19th-century black woman’s life asks us to consider who represents whom, and how and why.”