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L.A. artist's 'Truth' to be unveiled

Artis Lane's bust of the former slave, the first of a black woman in the U.S. Capitol, will be unveiled today.

April 28, 2009|Ari B. Bloomekatz

Frank Sinatra's family purchased her portrait of President Kennedy. Rosa Parks asked her to design her congressional Gold Medal. And President Clinton bought her painting of Hillary.

Artis Lane's sculptures and paintings are in the private collections of Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou and Nelson Mandela. She has also created works for Michael Jordan, Quincy Jones and Armand Hammer.

But at 81, Lane is celebrating what may be her greatest commission.

Today, First Lady Michelle Obama will help unveil Lane's bronze bust of Sojourner Truth, a former slave and women's rights activist that will be the first sculpture of a black woman in the U.S. Capitol. The ceremony will take place in Emancipation Hall at the newly opened Capitol Visitor Center.

"The world's coming around to seeing black as beautiful," Lane said in an interview at her home in Los Angeles' Fairfax district. "When I came up, they were laughing at darker people."

The campaign to memorialize Truth in the nation's Capitol began more than a decade ago. A self-educated abolitionist who changed her name from Isabella Baumfree, Truth played a large role in the women's suffrage movement and in 1851 delivered the famous "Ain't I a Woman?" speech at a women's rights convention in Ohio.

Truth, who died in 1883, "encompassed all aspects of a truly free woman," Lane said. "She personified women's rights, equal rights . . . the struggling and understanding that was taken away from us because of slavery."

E. Faye Williams, chairwoman of the nonprofit National Congress of Black Women, which commissioned the work, said many believed that Truth should stand alongside women's rights figures Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott in a portrait monument that was placed in the Capitol Rotunda in 1997.

Congressional legislation to include Truth in that group failed, Williams said. But Congress approved a bill in 2006 to memorialize the black suffragist in a stand-alone sculpture. Williams said Lane was the first choice to produce the work.

To help her prepare, Lane collected dozens of photographs and writings from Truth's life. She read one of her favorite quotations aloud last week while she got ready for her trip east.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back and get it right side up again. And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

Lane chuckled as her voice filled with excitement.

"In those days, a woman over 6 feet tall and working in the fields, they accused her of being manly," Lane said. "She bared her chest and said ain't I a woman? I've worked harder than some men in the fields, bleeding and have taken more whippings and all that. She's someone I deeply admire."

Lane traces her earliest memory of sculpting to about age 4, when she took one of her grandmother's dolls to a stream and tried to re-create the porcelain figure out of mud.

The granddaughter of abolitionist educators, Lane was born Artis Shreve in 1927 in North Buxton, an all-black town near Chatham in Ontario, Canada. She later moved about 100 miles west to Ann Arbor, Mich., where her father worked as a mechanic.

Lane said her ancestry is African and German and included among forebears is Mary Ann Shadd Cary, who launched the Provincial Freeman, an abolitionist newspaper.

As a child, Lane quickly took to drawing. Her teachers often tried to force her to use her right hand, instead of her left.

She went to college to study art in Toronto before switching to Cranbrook Academy of Art and then to UCLA. She became known early on for her portraits but has also gained fame in sculpting and other kinds of painting.

Last year, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa presented Lane with the Dream of Los Angeles award. The California African American Museum honored her with a lifetime achievement award in 2007 and staged a retrospective of more than 60 years of her work.

Among the pieces included in the exhibition titled "A Woman's Journey: The Life and Work of Artis Lane" were sculptures "Emerging Woman" and "Emerging First Man." The emergence of the bronze figures from their ceramic molds symbolizes man's emergence from material thinking into spiritual consciousness.

Also included in the show were landscape paintings, sculptures of Jerry Buss and Earvin "Magic" Johnson and a portrait of former Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young.

Even though much of her work is groundbreaking, she doesn't consider herself a protest artist and said that instead she's "making a statement of how the mortal man has disrupted the harmony of our lives."

Julian Bond, chairman of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, has a Lane portrait of him hanging in his bedroom in Washington, D.C. He said Lane was the perfect choice to sculpt Truth.

"Her family -- her personal story -- is so compelling, and in some ways she embodies the history of black Americans," Bond said.

"She's tied to all of this. It's as if somebody said 'Who could do this best?' And immediately think of her. Not simply because of her talent, but because of her history."


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