By Sandra Long Weaver
Tribune Editorial Director

Alan LeQuire has been sculpting women for more than 40 years, but his current body of work has never been more important or timely. His gallery in the 4300 block of Charlotte Street in Nashville is exhibiting “Monumental Women,” a tribute to the Tennessee women suffragists who fought for the passage of the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote a century ago.

The exhibit does more than pay tribute to the women suffragists. It also honors Black women who are rarely included in public art. “From the beginning of my career I wanted to make portraits of women,” LeQuire said. “There are not a lot of women out there but there are lots of dead white men” who have been commemorated as statues.

Only eight percent of the country’s public sculptures honor real women, according to an article about LeQuire in the July/August issue of the Fine Art Connoisseur Magazine. Only a tiny fraction of that number are Black women. And it is LeQuire who has sculpted most of them.

Outside of the Black women statues in his gallery, there is the bust of Sojourner Truth and a statue of Rosa Parks included in the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. 

Other places where there are statues of Black women include Washington D.C. with a statue of educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune with children; Maryland with a statue of Harriet Tubman in the national park named after her; and Boston, Mass. with a bust of America’s first Black female poet Phillis Wheatley.

The work created by LeQuire includes the bronze busts of Ida B. Wells, Lois DeBerry and Mary Church Terrell which will also become public art. There is also a plaster bust of Tennessee educator and activist J. Frankie Pierce as well as a replica of the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Monument in Centennial Park.

The Suffrage Monument also includes Pierce. Tracking down photos of Pierce was no easy task. LeQuire could only find one from the First Baptist Church Capitol Hill where she was an active member during her lifetime. A nearby park was named after Pierce in 2019.

Included in the Monumental Women exhibit are the colossal-sized heads of singers and activists Billie Holiday, Marian Anderson and Bessie Smith. The gallery also includes the beautiful bust of a Haitian woman with a glorious crown of braided hair. 

The heads are part of the Cultural Heroes series, a traveling tour that also includes three Black men. “I started doing heads just for fun; they weren’t a commission,” LeQuire said. “I read the biographies of musicians who were a generation before the civil rights movement.

“Paul Robeson was an inspiration.  He suffered so much for his opinions and activism and I realized what he and other musicians had done. I just did one after the other and then found out the post office had done stamps of same seven people.” The traveling exhibit is now in Boston but has been in Memphis and Arkansas as well as other states.

LeQuire, an internationally renowned artist, may be the only person to have sculpted this number of Black women and with great attention to their facial features, hair and bodily expressions. His work also includes the Athena statue in the Parthenon in Centennial Park and the Fountain on Division Street near Music Row.

“I wanted to do busts from waist up because you can include arms and hands,” LeQuire said of the busts. “Ida has a clenched fist because I wanted to do that because she was a fighter.” 

The DeBerry portrait is gesturing with her hand as if she is in conversation. And the Terrell portrait has a bouquet of flowers across her dress.

When asked if anything special besides the research goes into sculpting Black women, LeQuire responded  “the primary focus is trying to get a likeness. It is not just to duplicate forms in face but also to bring them to life. Lois DeBerry, it was inspirational to work on her. The exciting part of doing her portrait was bringing her to life.”

The exhibit will be open through December. However, the bronze busts of Wells, Church and DeBerry will be installed in October as part of the Memphis Equality Trailblazers Monument near the University of Memphis Law School.

But there will still be plaster replicas of the women on display. Groups of six or fewer may attend wearing face masks. Call 615-298-4611 for an appointment.