In 1940, 12-year-old Maya Angelou moved with her mother and brother from Stamps, Arkansas, to San Francisco, California. She studied acting and dance at the California Labor School, attended the Unity San Francisco church and, at the age of 16, got a job as a conductor on the city’s streetcars. It is likely that she was the first African-American female hired for the position.
Now, San Francisco is planning to honor the poet, author and Civil Rights activist with a sculpture that will sit outside the Main Library, located in the city’s Civic Center. The initiative, as Zachary Small reports for Hyperallergic, is part of a larger push to lessen the gender gap among San Francisco’s public monuments.
Of the 87 statues that dot the city, only two honor historical women, according to Small. One is a bust of Senator Dianne Feinstein, which sits outside the office where she once served as San Francisco’s mayor. The other, located near Laguna Honda Hospital, pays tribute to Florence Nightingale.
In 2017, Mark Farrell, who formerly served on the city’s Board of Supervisors, introduced a resolution that called for an increase of women’s representation across the public sphere by 30 percent. According to Heather Knight of the San Francisco Chronicle, the resolution encompassed not only monuments, but also corporate boards and street signs. The initiative’s first project, however, was to raise an Angelou statue at Main Library.
“The artwork is intended to honor one of the most significant literary artists and activists of our time, and will be an ever-present role model and inspiration to girls and young women,” says the San Francisco Arts Commission. “While most of the sculptures in the city’s collection that honor individuals recognize white men, the sculpture of Dr. Maya Angelou will redress this gender imbalance by not only honoring a woman, but a woman of color.”
This past November, the commission put out a call to artists for monument designs and received 111 responses. A panel subsequently whittled down the submissions to three proposals by the artists Jules Arthur, Kenyatta A. C. Hinkle, and Lava Thomas.
The three finalists each took a unique approach to memorializing Angelou’s legacy. Thomas’ design is a towering, nine-foot sculpture shaped into a book, with a portrait of Angelou on its surface. The image is based on a still from an interview that the author gave in 1937, and capturing her in motion, appearing as if she’s about to speak. Quotations by Angelou are etched onto the monument’s base and surface. “If one has courage,” one of them reads, “nothing can dim the light which shines from within.”
Hinkle’s proposed monument, titled “The 3 MAYA(s),” consists of three granite slabs arranged into a prism, each side depicting the author at a distinct phase in her life. One shows Angelou as an 8-year-old girl with an apple blossom, the state flower of Arkansas, hovering over her head. She clutches a book to her chest “as a sacred friend, shield, and protector,” according to the design concept; after a traumatic event in her childhood, which rendered her selectively mute, Angelou found comfort in poetry. The second panel shows Angelou as a teenage streetcar conductor, smiling and dressed in her MTA uniform. The third depicts Angelou at the age of 41, holding a copy of her famed memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The portraits will be rendered in “photorealistic mosaics,” and Hinkle tells Knight of the San Francisco Chronicle that the design was inspired by a conversation with Angelou’s son, Guy Johnson.
“He said that his mother would not stand for any injustice being carried out in her presence — she would never turn her back to injustice,” the artist explains. “You will never see the back of this monument. You will always have a version of Maya looking at you.”
Arthur’s design similarly focuses on Angelou at different ages. The heart of his monument consists of a granite stone wall inscribed with one of Angelou’s quotations: “When I look back, I am so impressed again with the life-giving power of literature. If I were a young person today, trying to gain a sense of myself in the world, I would do that again by reading, just as I did when I was young.” On either side of the wall perch two bronze statues. One depicts Angelou as an adult, working at a typewriter and gazing towards the second statue, which shows Angelou as a girl, standing atop a bird cage.
“Maya Angelou was an exceptional human being—a vessel of goodness that we can all learn from,” Arthur tells Knight. “To create a work of art to commemorate that and honor her was just the stuff that I want my art to be about.”
The artists’ designs were put on display at the Main Library, and the public was invited to give feedback. Now, the commission is due to make its final selection on Friday, August 9. The completed monument is expected to go up by December 31, 2020.