Malignant monuments: On permanency, “Prototypes,” and York

It has been a year and a half since monuments started coming down in Portland. Should replacements be permanent?

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One of the most intriguing mysteries in Portland this year was the February appearance of a large sculpture at the top of Mt. Tabor. Overnight, an unknown artist had taken over the plinth once occupied by a bronze statue of Harvey Whitefield Scott, an Oregon pioneer, torn down some months earlier. In its place was a beautiful sculpture, perfectly matched to the base. An accompanying plaque identified this massive and eloquent head of a man as York. (York was William Clark’s African slave and accompanied him on the Corps of Discovery, as an important member of the party.)  With his calm demeanor and his inward-looking gaze, the man projected timeless dignity and wisdom. The artist, Todd McGrain, remained anonymous until August, after his sculpture had been vandalized and ultimately destroyed: it was made of Styrofoam painted to resemble bronze, and McGrain never intended it to be a permanent installation.  In fact, he was surprised both by the impact it had on its myriad viewers and by its longevity, as he explained in a conversation with Kristin Calhoun, Director of Public Art at the Regional Arts & Culture Council and with Dr. Darrell Milner, Professor at Portland State, whose writings on York had inspired the artist.

Todd McGrain’s bust of York at Mt. Tabor Park installed in February of 2020. Image courtesy of Kristian Foden-Vencil and OPB.

McGrain, who is best known for The Lost Bird Project—a body of work encompassing sculptures of extinct birds as well as book and a film—has offered to give the city a bronze cast of York, and there is certainly support for acquiring a work of such aesthetic and cultural significance.  Whether or not that will—or should—happen is one of the many threads in a wide-ranging discussion taking place right now, as we look beyond last year’s destruction and removal of monuments, not only in downtown Portland but around the globe. As a city, we need to re-examine the idea of commemorative statues as well as their impact on the public spaces they occupy. As Kristin Calhoun wisely noted in an interview, this is not a decision that has to happen immediately, in the heat of this incendiary time, when politics, COVID, and economic disasters are transforming the urban landscape and the way we inhabit and use it, now and in the future. 

Monuments can be alarming: the heft and hubris of triumphal arches, the long shadows cast by bigger-than-life-size men (nearly always men), immortalized and unapproachable on the plinths that elevate them to a state of bronze apotheosis. Monuments are most often political. They memorialize people who frequently don’t deserve the honor; people who are, at best, flawed and imperfect human beings. They recognize victory and military prowess. They speak of might and power and individual heroism, but not of the costs those qualities incur. They do not address the collective good and they ignore the lives shattered by war, racial injustice, and conquest. 

I was not sorry last year when the statues started falling. While I would have chosen a different method for their removal, I can sympathize with the rage and the frustration that led to their disfiguration and their violent demise, in the days following the murder of George Floyd.

In the South Park Blocks, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt were yanked off their pedestals on October 11, 2020, during an event titled the Indigenous Peoples Day of Rage. On October 20, an anonymous group climbed to the top of Mt. Tabor and toppled the statue of Harvey Whitefield Scott (1838-1910), a pioneer, early publisher of the Oregon and a somewhat vitriolic conservative. The statue, made by Gutzon Borglum (of Mt. Rushmore infamy) was placed there in 1933, a gift to the city from Scott’s family. For more on the demise of these pieces, please read Laurel Reed Pavic’s essays from last fall.

Felled sculpture of Harvey Whitefield Scott on Mt. Tabor, 2020. Image from the Oregonian.

All these works and others (sculptures of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington as well as the Elk and David Manuel’s The Promised Land) are now in storage, under the care of the Regional Arts & Culture Council. Most of them require extensive and expensive conservation.

There are no immediate plans for their reappearance, and it seems unlikely any of them, save the Elk, which was removed for its own safety, will return to their previous homes. (Note: The Oregonian has just reported that the Elk will not appear soon, and is unlikely to return to its original spot, since its base was destroyed. Further, several city committees are involved in its placement.)

That leaves the question of empty plinths and vacant spaces. What, if anything, will replace the monuments?  Should they be replaced at all? Who will make those decisions?  In early 20th century Portland, there were no art councils or committees, and most monuments and public sculptures were given to the city by “founding fathers” such as Henry Waldo Coe, a friend of Theodore Roosevelt, who donated that equestrian statue as well as Lincoln, among other gifts. 

Empty plinth, formerly the base of a monument to Theodore Roosevelt.

The Promised Land, David Manuel’s ode to Manifest Destiny and the Anglo-Saxon, Christian nuclear family, was “gifted” to the city in 1993 by the Oregon Trail Coordinating Council, who wanted it to reside in the South Park blocks. When that site was denied them by the city and the Metropolitan Arts Commission (precursor to RACC), a committee was formed to determine where to place the unsolicited and unwanted sculpture. Over the next several months, it roamed around, from the front of the Oregon Historical Society to the Lloyd District, before being installed in Chapman Square. (I liked my late husband’s proposed placement best: he wanted to weld it to the bottom of the Hawthorne Bridge, facing east.) It was among the first works to be attacked and was removed in July 2020.

There have been fascinating proposals and conversations around the issues of monuments and public spaces here in Portland, thanks in large measure to the work of the Regional Arts & Culture Council and Converge 45, whose Prototypes exhibition is on view through October 9th. (Converge 45’s Portland’s Monuments and Memorials Project—PMMP– has yielded some excellent conversations in the past months, and there are more on the horizon. The Prototypes exhibition is a result of PMMP’s ongoing dialogue about public art that included an “Open Call for Public Pedestals.” Open to anyone, the call garnered a series of responses, which were then shaped into Prototypes.

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The application posed two questions: “What is an appropriate monument or memorial for this time and place?” and “What monument or memorial would you want in your neighborhood?” The resulting submissions may or may not offer any viable solutions, and the exhibition includes several alternatives to and commentaries on the traditional monument. Jess Perlitz, for instance, reduced it to its materials: a length of fabric and a large, shapeless blob of bronze. Garrick Imatani ‘s clock-and-mirror sculpture allowed time to recede and advance: “Some Dreams need to die in order for other dreams to become real,” he wrote. The Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde entered a group of works reflecting on place and heritage. And McGrain (still anonymous at the time) entered an enormous drawing of York’s head: a study for his sculpture. 

Todd McGrain. (Formerly) Anonymous submission to Prototypes at Converge45. Image from Suzette Smith and Willamette Week.

Very few works honored an individual or memorialized a specific event, thereby broadening the conversation to encompass and recognize the people who use the spaces where monuments are placed. As Calhoun noted in our conversation, public art installations of any kind must honor public faith: “who feels held and who feels ignored.”  While it is never possible to reach complete consensus, public art at the very least needs to “do no harm.”

To the questions posed by PMMP, I might add a third: “Should monuments ever be permanent?” Or should they, instead, self-destruct or be ephemeral in nature? Do we need any more bronze figures? 

There’s an art-historical phrase, “damnatio memoriae” or “condemnation of memory. “It was coined in recent times, and it is most frequently used to describe the act of attempting to erase a person from history by destroying or defacing their physical image. Think of the Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut (c. 1508-1458 BCE), whose stepson Thutmose III smashed stone statues and destroyed paintings of her in her mortuary temple when he became ruler; or of the bronze sculptures of Roman emperors, melted down to be recast in the likeness of their successors. Clearly, this strategy was more effective in the ancient world than it is today, in an age of instant access to images, when the past can’t be erased so easily. 

Among the most dramatic photos of the last year have been those by the artist Kris Graves, whose tour of Southern states last year yielded a body of work documenting the destruction of Confederate monuments and place names. His image of the graffiti-covered memorial to Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, further altered with a video projection of George Floyd’s face on its plinth, and “BLM” emblazoned on Lee’s warhorse, was the cover image for a special edition of National Geographic in January 2021. On September 8th, Lee finally came down, was chopped into pieces, and hauled away.

Coming back to Todd McGrain’s bust of York. Is it appropriate to replace one bronze man with another?  Despite my skepticism about the viability of permanent monuments, I am rooting for this one.  I hope we have not seen the last of it—perhaps installed at Mt. Tabor, or perhaps elsewhere in the city. This is one unsolicited gift I think the city should accept.

About the author

Prudence Roberts recently retired from Portland Community College, where she taught art history and was curator of the collections and gallery at the Rock Creek campus. Prior to that, she spent 14 years as Curator of American art at the Portland Art Museum. She continues to work as a freelance writer and curator and serves on the boards of Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts and the Multnomah County Cultural Coalition.

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