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Boston Women’s Memorial looks back on a decade on Comm Ave

Posted by boston.com  October 22, 2013 12:15 PM

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By Anastasia Yefremova, Globe Correspondent

Some 15 years ago, when Meredith Bergmann first settled on the idea of creating a memorial to some of Boston’s great women, she didn’t know all that much about the figures that now grace Back Bay’s Commonwealth Avenue.

Not about Abigail Adam’sthoughtful letters to her husband and second United States president John Adams. Not about women’s rights activist Lucy Stone, one of the first Massachusetts women to graduate from college. Not about the book of poems literary prodigy and former slave Phillis Wheatley published, the first written by an African writer in America.

Fast-forward to 2013. Abigail, Phillis and Lucy form a casual semi-circle of bronze and granite, one-and-a-half times bigger than they were in life.There are Mona Lisa smiles on their sculpted faces,patches of sunlight filtering through a rustling canopy of elm and maple trees. The women stand between renditions of Argentina’s former president Domingo Sarmiento and historian and writer Samuel Eliot Morison. Among the ten statues and memorials dotting the one-and-a-half milelength of Back Bay’s Commonwealth Avenue,the Boston Women’s Memorial is the only one that honors women.

This October 27 will mark ten years since it was unveiled and 13 years since Bergmann won the contest for its creation. 

Talk of the memorial began in 1992 as a collaboration of the Boston Women’s Commission, the Commonwealth Avenue Mall Committee and the Massachusetts Historical Society, among others. It was to be Bergmann’s first major commission, she recalled. Not a small challenge, given that she was based in New Jersey at the time and knew little to nothing about her subjects.

Her sister Laura Gang, a Roslindale resident with a union organizer background, came through for her those first few years, Bergmann said.

“I may have chased down some foundations for funding, but my main role was as her sister, cheering her on, being the local eyes and ears for the process,” said Gang, a 56-year-old executive director for the Sheehan Family Foundation. “I could attend things she couldn’t, like planning meetings.”

Soon enough Bergmann was able to “articulate wonderfully” who Abigail, Phillis and Lucy were, Gang said. As she dove into the project, Bergmann found a deeply personal level of kinship with her subjects.

“Because it took so long, and sculpture for me is relatively slow, I kept researching, I kept reading about them. It was a source of great encouragement to have their lives as example,” 58-year-old Bergmann said. “When my son was 3, he wasn’t developing normally and was diagnosed with autism. That was during the project and I drew strength from how these women dealt with real troubles, absent husbands, dying children. That was very helpful for me personally.”

Her son Daniel, now 17, is taking college courses online, “very bright but still very autistic,” she said.

Bergmann’s growing respect and admiration for the three women resonated with the group involved in the artist selection process, said Boston Women’s Commission Executive Director Marie Turley. Bergmann’s vision of combining traditional and contemporary art landed her the commission.

“There is a wonderful sculptor who worked primarily in Mexico, who sculpted beautiful, strong statues of women,” Bergmann said. “There was something very powerful and not completely realistic about them. Something heightened and slightly abstract.”

That sculptor would be Francisco Zúñiga, a 20th century Costa-Rican born Mexican artist who produced works like Seated Yucatan Woman and Squatting Nude. Bergmann also drew inspiration from Greco-Roman Hellenistic statuary and early Renaissance artist Andrea del Verrocchio, whose pupils included Leonardo da Vinci. The result isclassically crafted bronze faces and fluid lines arranged around polished granite blocks carved with inscriptions of the women’s writings. 

Lucy is portrayed half on top of an editorial desk, working on The Woman’s Journal she founded, the foremost women’s suffrage publication of its era.The poetic cliché of the angelic woman placed on a pedestal has been symbolically and literally brought down. 

“I had the feeling that she’d taken the pedestal and wrestled it to the ground,” Bergmann said.

The three statues were meant to create an intergenerational tableau that women of all ages could relate to, Turley said.

“Phillis died youngest, after childbirth,” Bergmann said. “Lucy didn’t move to Massachusetts until she was middle-aged. Abigail, the elder figure of contemplation, is looking back through history, at how amazing all that’s happened to her and the foremothers of America is.”

Over the years, the Boston Women’s Memorial has become a beloved feature on Commonwealth Avenue Mall. Turley recalled pictures of people leaving scarves around the women’s necks in the winter and children climbing the statues at all hours of the day.

“Someone placed a Red Sox cap on Phillis in 2004 when the Red Sox won the World Series for the first time in 86 years,” she said.

Bergmann spoke of flowers left at the women’s feet and sweaters thrown over their shoulders in chill weather. She remembered her last visit to the memorial.

“There was a woman in her ‘70s jogging up Commonwealth Avenue, wearing a cute little jogging outfit,” she said. “She ran right through the memorial and kissed her fingertips, put them to Abigail’s cheeks, said “Hi, Abbey!” and kept running. Somehow that monument belongs to her and many, many people feel that way.”

Bergmann will be attending the tenth anniversary of the memorial’s unveiling scheduled forOct. 27 with her son Daniel and her husband, Michael. 

“The unveiling attracted 600 people,” Turley said. “There was drama, there were gorgeous drapes the colors of suffrage, just a gorgeous, glorious October day in Boston. It was a very different moment. This is a celebration of the days after that unveiling, with participants in the original inspiration and new friends the memorial has made in Boston.”

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College

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