Bolder Booker T. Washington envisioned
June 4, 1985
by Skip Johnson
Bolder Booker T. Washington envisioned
Sutton - The bust of Booker T. Washington that was unveiled last week at the state Capitol was not the bust that artist Bill Hopen of Sutton originally wanted to do, and not the one he proposed to the Booker T. Washington Foundation board that commissioned him.
Hopen proposed what was, in his view, "a more powerful Washington" with arms, clenched fist and a broken chain around one wrist that signified the former slave's freedom.
But the board rejected Hopen's bolder Washington, ordering instead an armless bust that more closely resembled, in size and expression, the original bust that it replaces.
Hopen, a New York City native who came to Braxton County to live nine years ago, was grateful for the commission to do the Washington bust, but wishes he'd been given more artistic freedom of expression.
"I want to voice my gratitude and appreciation to the board to be given a chance," Hopen said Monday, "but I would also like for people to see my version. I'm an artist who is judged on his product, and I would have preferred to have been more expressive."
The Hopen bust replaced a 30-year-old bust of Washington that had badly deteriorated, mainly the result of vandalism when it was located on U. S. 60 at Malden, and later was moved to the Capitol grounds.
The artist was paid through grants from the Department of Culture and History, the administration of former Gov. Jay Rockefeller and private funds raised by the foundation.
After it was decided restoration of the original Washington bust wasn't practical, Hopen was selected from among various state artists to do a new bronze bust of the black leader and educator. He received his commission early this year.
"I proceeded to read Washington's life story," Hopen said, "and I obtained about 15 photographs. I tried to get a good idea of the man - what he was as well as what he looked like."
Hopen came up with a clay study - not the finished bronze bust - that showed Washington in a much different manner than the original bust.
Hopen's Washington had one hand holding a book. The wrist was manacled, with a broken chain dangling from it, symbolizing the end of slavery. Washington rose from slavery to national prominence as an educator and founder of Tuskegee Institute.
Hopen contends a portrait artist is like a biographer, and that his version of Washington more closely hewed the line to the real man behind the bust.
"He was an orator," Hopen said of Washington, "and pictures of him showed his fist was always clenched. It was part of the intensity of the man, part of his internal power."
But the board rejected the Hopen view and opted for a bust that adhered more closely to the original.
"They were very happy with the final product," said Hopen, who attended the unveiling. "Everybody loved it."
Hopen gained a concession from the board on one point. "They wanted a smooth sculpture, including the face," he said. "I wanted wrinkles. A smooth surface is death to a sculptor. Light gleams off a smooth surface and makes the object look like a robot, or a car body."
Norman Fagan, commissioner of the Department of Culture and History, said one reason for the foundation's view of the bust was that it was intended as a replacement, and not an original work. "The contract with the artist gave him the right of approval or disapproval," he said. "This is something that happens quite often."
He said the foundation board received independent corroboration of its opposition to the clenched fist in the Hopen original. "Washington was a man who totally opposed violence," Fagan said.
"But we were tickled to death they chose a state artist, and as far as Hopen's clay study is concerned, he is still free to do that one and sell it if he wishes."