Just the Facts

Sculpture unveiling culmination of vision to honor legacy of women of Macon County

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Deena Bouknight

Large metropolitan cities may boast of statuary and monuments, but few small U.S. towns have the resources, location, talent, and funds for anything beyond a park plaque or a historic marker. Yet, on Saturday, March 23, beginning at 11 a.m., Franklin will welcome a $400,000, impressive, 7-foot-tall bronze sculpture created by a world-renowned and Academy Award-winning artist, Wesley Wofford. 

How and why such a project took shape and came to fruition is a true tale with many twists and turns and dedicated people involved. On Feb. 19, at Cowee School Arts & Heritage Center’s monthly “Where We Live: History, Nature, and Culture Speaker Series,” Folk Heritage Association of Macon County (FHAMC) board member Mary Polanski presented to a packed auditorium a slide show that offered a history-to-the-present explanation of the much-anticipated public sculpture, titled “Sowing the Seeds of the Future.” Presented to the town of Franklin, it will be installed at the newly named Women’s History Park, between East and Northeast Main Streets in Franklin on March 23, for what is being dubbed Women’s History Trail (WHT) Sculpture Community Celebration Day.

Groundbreaking on the park took place Oct. 27 with board members from FHAMC and local leaders present. Responsible for the site work, landscaping, and design is Clark & Company of Franklin, owned by Macon County native Richard Clark. March was chosen for the unveiling of the sculpture and the dedication of the park as March is Women’s History Month.  

Before Polanski began her presentation on Feb. 19, Susan Ervin, a board member at Cowee School, expressed, “It’s not an easy task to conceptualize, plan, fund, and bring about a huge sculpture – and it’s even unusual for a sculpture to focus on roles local women played in history.”  

JADA BRYSON performs an interpretive dance in conjunction with Stan Polanski’s reading of “The Sexton’s Tale,” a set of monologues written by Barbara McRae.

“It’s truly been a community effort,” said Polanski as she launched into her presentation. “Nothing would be happening if it hadn’t been for Barbara McRae [who passed in March 2021]; she was a historian, naturalist, visionary, journalist, trail blazer … and she met [sculptor] Wesley Wofford at a chance encounter and that sparked the creation of an idea to bring historical research to life in art.”

Indeed, it was in late 2018 that the FHAMC board members, through the group’s WHT project, commissioned nationally renowned figurative sculptor Wesley Wofford to begin work on creating a 1,500-pound bronze sculpture grouping of three women and two children whose lives and cultures intersected in the early days of Macon County.

 “This sculpture tells the story of three women: a Cherokee woman (Na-Ka Rebecca Morris), an enslaved woman (Salley), and a pioneer woman (Harriet Timoxena Siler Sloan) – all connected by a specific piece of property that was on the Little Tennessee River across from the Noquisiyi (sometimes rendered as Nikwasi) Mound,” relayed Wofford.  “It represents these historical women but also symbolizes each group of women and their cultural contributions. The sculpture is a metaphor for the evolution of modern society, a narrative about three local women, as well as a history lesson with embedded historically accurate details. It is intended to acknowledge and celebrate women’s contributions, to inspire future generations of girls and women to pursue their dreams, and to challenge us all to learn from the past and aspire for a more equitable future.”

Wofford is planning to attend the March 23 sculpture unveiling.

A SCHEMATIC design was presented at the February Town of Franklin Council meeting, during which the Women’s History Park was officially named. On March 23, the long-awaited Women’s History Trail sculpture, “Sowing the Seeds of the Future” will be unveiled to the public at the new park.

McRae had embarked on extensive research about the three women and it was her research that motivated Wofford, known for his meticulous, painstaking attention to detail. In fact, Wofford, who was born in Georgia but lived in California during the early part of his career, relocated to Cashiers in 2002 and operates out of a studio there with his wife, Odyssey, studio director. In 2004, while Wofford worked in Hollywood, he won an Emmy from The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences; and, in 2005, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him a Technical Achievement Academy Award for his groundbreaking and now industry standard contributions. He received numerous other awards and accolades for his decade of work on more than 75 projects in the film industry.

However, his true calling is as a sculptor and his installations in private and public locations are located throughout the U.S. His most noteworthy piece, the 9-foot Harriet Tubman Monument, “The Journey to Freedom,” used local models, including Jada Bryson, an interpretive dancer who performed after Polanski’s presentation at Cowee School. 

Achieving the “Sowing the Seeds of the Future” sculpture was a “long road but an amazingly creative process,” shared Polanski, who showed slides of the many different stages of the sculpture from conception to marquette (a crude, small sculpture representation) to modeling, costumes, body measurements, and head studies. Three models were chosen to represent the sculpture’s real historic figures: sculptor and artist Angela Cunningham, who modeled Timoxena Siler Sloan, a white woman; Blue Jazz lead singer Delphine Kirkland, who modeled Salley (last name unknown), an enslaved woman; and, Wahlalah Brown of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, who modeled Na-Ka Rebecca Morris, a Cherokee woman. 

THE SCULPTURE in clay at an early stage.

Responsible for creating the authentic costumes for the figures of Timoxena and Salley was Kathryn Sellers, seamstress.

“I was exposed to historical lifeways and sewing by my Aunt Martha,” said Sellers. “I didn’t think anything of it at the time. But I’ve really been involved in creating historic costumes the last four years or so. It was such an honor to work with the (FHAMC) team, especially Barbara McRae, who was the driving force, and Wesley, who is just good at what he does. We looked at images of the time period and focused on the stories of the women subjects in the sculpture.

“As I drive to work in the morning and back home every day, passing by the Women’s History Park, I will be a little dumbstruck to see the sculpture and to know that the costumes I made are forever bronzed,” she said. “But it is Wesley who brought the creation to life and he’s the one to be admired for telling the story of the women in the sculpture.”

Besides the two costumes sewn by Sellers, the Brown family of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, painstakingly crafted the costume of Na-Ka Rebecca Morris based on their generational and historic knowledge. 

Eye toward the finish line

The five-year grassroots campaign to raise funds to pay for the sculpture project includes close to an additional $200,000 (in excess of the sculpture cost) for park site development, installation, landscaping, and more. Generated donations were not only from the Town of Franklin, Macon County, and other local entities but also from area businesses, philanthropists, and individuals as well as ongoing monies contributed through volunteer-organized sales of cookies, native plants, lemonade, books, and more. A generous amount allocated for the sculpture project came from the family of Barbara McRae.

THE LATE Barbara McRae was instrumental in the establishment of the Women’s History Trail in Franklin.

“And, before Barbara passed, she was able to see and approve the one-third scale model of the sculpture that Wesley and Odyssey brought to her home,” said Polanski. 

“After FHAMC’s five-year journey to complete and fund this historic piece, on Friday, May 12, [2023] the sculpture received its final bronze casting at Pyrology in Bastrop, Texas,” said FHAMC treasurer, Theresa Ramsey. 

Polanski showed the Cowee School audience photographs of this momentous event. 

“Three members of the WHT Leadership Team (Marty Greeble, Polanski and Claire Suminski) traveled to the foundry where they joined Wesley,” said Polanski. “The experience of watching the final patina application to the bronze sculpture was memorable, a once in a lifetime moment. It’s just been so fascinating seeing how the sculpture has become a reality.” 

Following Polanski’s presentation, Kirkland shared her own “exhaustive” research about the figure of Salley. Donning a costume made by Sellers, Kirkland offered what she had learned about Salley, including that she had been owned by the Morrises and then the Silers, so she would likely have known both of the other women represented in the sculpture. 

A DISPLAY at Renee’s Cake Shop features information on Lassie Kelly, a Yeoman who served during World War I, and who has a WHT marker at 614 West Main Street. She later became the proprietor of Kelly’s Tea Room and Inn in Franklin.

Kirkland said that the experience of modeling for the sculpture and working with Wofford was “wonderful … to work with someone of that level of professionalism was like working with a director on a movie set. He told me when I was modeling that I needed to become Salley and look forward into the future – a free future. By being a part of this project, I will be part of the Franklin community forever – being that that sculpture will be there forever.”

The Feb. 19 program at Cowee School concluded with a performance of “The Sexton’s Tale,” one of a set of monologues written by McRae that was conveyed in dialogue by Polanski’s husband, Stan, and danced by Bryson. In the theatrical piece, performed on the Cowee School auditorium stage, Bryson portrayed the ghost of Salley visiting the cemetery of Franklin’s First United Methodist Church. 

Bryson shared after the Cowee School program about how her life has been intertwined with Wofford’s work, as model for Wofford’s Harriet Tubman sculpture and as dancer for the “Sowing the Seeds of the Future” sculpture project. In fact, Wofford first met Bryson when he watched her perform the dance of Salley.

“Working with Wesley and embodying Harriet has changed my life,” said Bryson, who has been dancing for 14 years. “Wesley dives deep into the lives of who he creates, and I love how Wesley respects the opinions of his models. It truly is a group creation and no detail is too small.”

Bryson will also be dancing the role of Salley at the sculpture’s installation on March 23. 

Wofford, who is scheduled to speak at the unveiling, said, “It has been an honor to work on such an important project. We think that the leadership of the Women’s History Trail is setting a nationwide example of how these types of projects should be accomplished. Their message of elevation and unity and collaboration resonates now and into the future. We are stronger as a society acknowledging everyone’s contributions and creating a better world together. Odyssey and I are so excited about the upcoming unveiling and look forward to celebrating with everyone!”

“Where the sculpture will be installed [at Women’s History Park], is expected to become a gateway tourism heritage destination,” said Polanski. “People will be able to enjoy the sculpture … front, back, 360-degrees.”

attended the Women’s History Trail opening in 2018.

Final monies were approved at the March 4 Town of Franklin Council meeting to pay for the completion of Women’s History Park, where the sculpture will be installed. Businesses and volunteers are involved in promoting Women’s History Trail, leading up to the March 23 sculpture unveiling. One of the featured historic women on the Trail is Lassie Kelly. During World War I, Kelly served as a Yeoman in the offices of Secretary of the Navy. Currently on display at Renee’s Cake Shoppe on Main Street in Franklin is a costume made by Sellers like the one that Kelly would have worn, complete with authentic World War I buttons. Kelly became the proprietor of what was Kelly’s Tea Room and Inn in Franklin, and the establishment was known for its pound cake, a Lassie Kelly recipe. During the month of March, Renee’s will be making the Kelly’s pound cake recipe and offering it with fresh strawberries and homemade whipped cream.

Lazy Hiker is brewing a featured beer and naming it “Sowing the Seeds of the Future.” Kitchen Sink will enable customers to sample Indian frybread with a variety of dipping sauces. Several other stores are focusing on WHT in various ways. 

For a full list of WHT sculpture unveiling activities to take place at the March 23 event, 592 East Main Street, visit: https://www.womenshistorytrail.org/wht-community-celebration.html.