Iconic: After a lifetime of breaking barriers, Alice Dunnigan is memorialized in bronze

Kentucky sculptor Amanda Matthews stands over the recently cast bronze head of Alice Dunnigan, the first black female journalist to receive credentials for the White House on Monday, Sept. 3, 2018, in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Arden Barnes | Staff

Bailey Vandiver

Pieces of her body lay scattered on the floor.

The light coming in the window illuminated the details: the pearls in her ears and around her neck, the gloves covering her hands, the newspaper lying next to her.

But there were missing parts— the ones that had not yet been cast in bronze.

Those pieces will soon form a life-size statue of Alice Dunnigan, the first black female journalist to be credentialed to cover the White House. Born in Russellville, Kentucky, in 1906, Dunnigan attended college at Kentucky State University and taught in Kentucky before moving to Washington, D.C., during World War II. She continually broke down racial and gender-based barriers during her time as a reporter. She died in 1983 and was inducted into the Black Journalist Hall of Fame soon after.

The statue, which will be temporarily displayed at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., is being sculpted by Prometheus Art owners Amanda Matthews and Brad Connell.

“We want her to be a household name,” Matthews said of Dunnigan.

Amanda, Artemis, Alice

Matthews, who was born in Louisville and now lives and works in Lexington, was chosen to make the statue of Dunnigan, because of her past work and passion for sculpting women.

This “quest” to increase the number of sculptures of women began in 2014. Connell, who has been Matthews’ business partner since 2009 and her husband since 2015, said he remembers working in the shop that day.

“Amanda came down and I’ve never seen her more angry, and I was racking my brain trying to figure out what I had done,” he said.

Matthews had read a Courier Journal article that said the “closest thing to a woman honored by a full-scale statue on public property in Kentucky” was Carolina, a male general’s horse.

“She was mad, and I don’t blame her,” Connell said. “I was mad, too.”

Matthews continued to research statues of women, and she found that a very small percentage of statues on United States public property honored women. Plus, those few statues that did were more often of abstract archetypes or fictional characters, rather than portraying specific, historical women.

When Matthews decided she wanted to change this, she started with one goal: to get a sculpture of a woman in the Kentucky State Capitol Building. To achieve that goal — which she realized was going to be a challenge — she founded the Artemis Initiative, a 501C3 public charity focused on creating, erecting and maintaining public art that “elevates the status of women and minorities and children — you know, the ones who have been left out of history,” Matthews said.

After months of donations and deliberations, the Historic Properties Commission voted unanimously that there will be a sculpture of a woman going into the capitol building. Matthews is also currently working on that project.

It was this project, via an article written by the Lexington Herald-Leader about the Artemis Initiative, that led Matthews to Alice Dunnigan.

Gran Clark, who is a leader in the West Kentucky African American Heritage Center in Russellville, Dunnigan’s hometown, contacted Matthews “out of the blue.”

He told Matthews that he wanted to work on a project honoring Dunnigan for years, and he wanted Matthews to be involved.

“I was all in from the very beginning,” Matthews said.

To decide what the statue would look like and other details, Clark invited Matthews to Russellville. Matthews entered K.P. Hall in Russellville expecting to speak with a few people. Instead, she said, she watched just about the whole town file into the meeting hall.

“The most diverse group of people you could have ever imagined,” she said. “Tiny little Caucasian librarians, very large, 60-years-younger African American men— who are sitting next to each other.”

Matthews said she knew she was the outsider.

“They’re all the community,” she said. “They’re all her (Dunnigan’s) community.”

Matthews said she realized that while she might be the expert in sculpture, she was not the expert in what they were trying to accomplish.

“This very diverse community of people had one shared goal, and that goal was to let everybody in the nation know that somebody like Alice Dunnigan came from their tiny town — from this tiny little speck of a town — and made such a national impact,” she said.

Matthews said she spent two-and-a-half hours listening to the wishes of the Russellville community.

“That was a pretty profound day,” she said.

From photograph to bronze

At that “town hall” meeting, Matthews, Clark and the people of Russellville decided to base the sculpture off “the iconic image of her standing on the Capitol steps, holding The Washington Post.”

Matthews said she doesn’t love working from a photograph because she likes to have creative license, but a photograph is about the only option when the subject has passed away.

The benefit of the Dunnigan statue, she said, is that it’s based only on the one image. Plus, Matthews was able to take a little creative license by doing some “selective editing.”

For example, Dunnigan’s dress is polka dotted, but Matthews and Connell are leaving the polka dots off the sculpture to avoid a look of busyness.

Matthews kept the “big floppy-looking hat,” though, because it showcases something about Dunnigan’s personality. Dunnigan wrote in her book that people would criticize her clothing, including that hat, as not being professional enough.

“It’s because she didn’t have the money; she was paid so much less,” Matthews said.

So Dunnigan used the clothes she could afford over and over, with different accessories like hats, pearl earrings and gloves. Her pearls and gloves are part of the statue.

Matthews also wanted to emphasize that the wind was blowing, as well as Dunnigan’s form under her dress.

“That’s actually something that has become kind of a hallmark of my work about women, because I really want you to see the body under the clothing,” she said.

So Matthews made sure the form of her legs was visible and lowered the neckline of her dress “a tiny bit.”

“So the things that I thought were very specific to her and to the period I kept, and then anything that I thought might detract from what I was trying to convey, I either played down or left out,” she said.

Before work officially began on the project, though, Matthews and Clark co-wrote a grant to get funding. The grant of $60,000 covered the initial cost and allowed Matthews and Connell to get started on the sculpture.

The process is a long one, and Matthews and Connell began sometime in late 2016, they said.

After they chose the photo and finalized the design, Matthews and Connell sculpted a maquette, or a small model of the piece, that captures the shape and the gesture of the sculpture. Then a vendor in Cincinnati made a digital computer model of it using about 350 digital cameras, which photograph the model from every possible angle so a three-dimensional computer model can be created.

“We have this ancient art form we’re working with, but we also have a little bit of brand new technology,” Matthews said.

Then a different vendor in Colorado took the digital file and created a full-size version of the sculpture, this time out of a “dense, blue Styrofoam,” Connell said. Matthews and Connell then put an oil-based clay on top of the Styrofoam and did any reworking that might be necessary after the resizing.

“For Amanda’s portraits, it’s normally around a year from maquette to life-size, ready for us to start the foundry process on,” Connell said.

Then a urethane rubber mold was applied around the clay shape, with a “mother mold” made of molding plaster reinforced with hemp fiber put on top of that to strengthen it.

“We were using hemp before it was cool,” Matthews said.

The molds are made in pieces, and then used to make hollow wax replicas of the original clay.

“Whatever we have in wax, we’re eventually going to have in bronze,” Connell said — which is why they don’t make a solid wax replica that would become solid bronze. Even made of hollow bronze, the statue, which is 6-foot-3 from her feet to the top of her hat, will weigh about 350 pounds.

Sprues, which are wax rods, are attached to the wax models to allow channels through which the metal will flow. The wax is then covered in a ceramic shell mold by dipping it into a liquid ceramic slip called slurry. Silica sand, both fine and coarse, is then poured over it.

Then things heat up: The ceramic shell molds are put in a kiln upside down, and the wax melts out, leaving the molds hollow— which is why this is called the “lost wax” method of bronze casting, Connell said. Finally, molten metal is poured into the mold.

Once the bronze cools, the ceramic shell has to be chipped off. Then, once all the pieces of the sculpture are in bronze, the pieces have to be welded together in the proper form, and then smoothed down until it’s just right.

“And that’s how you make a bronze statue,” Connell said after explaining the process.

“This is ready, sweetie,” Matthews said to Connell at this point — she had been working on the wax replica of Dunnigan’s lower legs and feet. Those legs, along with her skirt and torso, were then in the wax replica stage, while other pieces, like her head and arms, had already been cast in bronze.

Connell said that people often get confused by the process, which will ultimately include three positives of the sculpture— one in clay, one in wax and one in bronze— and two negatives, the rubber mold and the ceramic shell mold.

“So you go back and forth and back and forth,” he said.

Matthews estimated that once all of the pieces are in bronze and have already been cleaned up a bit, she and Connell will still have between 120 and 150 hours of “fit and weld, chasing welds, finishing all that.”

Then, of course, the sculpture will have to be transported.

Alice’s second Whistle Stop tour

In 1948, Dunnigan was one of only three black journalists and two women in the press corps that accompanied President Harry S. Truman on his whistle stop campaign— Matthews said Dunnigan’s going on the trip was “unheard of.”

“Everyone said, a woman can’t go on that, and she figured out a way to go,” Matthews said.

At the beginning of this project, when Matthews and Clark began to collaborate, they had no idea that this statue would end up going to Washington, D.C. Russellville was the only destination they originally had in mind.

But it all “blossomed” from there, Matthews said, and people in the Russellville community said they should try to get the statue to tour around.

Hence the nickname given by Matthews and Connell to what will be the statue’s journey: Alice Dunnigan’s second whistle stop tour.

The statue will definitely be installed at the Newseum on Sept. 21, but beyond that, the statue’s future is a little uncertain. The original plan was for the statue to return to Russellville in December, but the viral response to the Newseum’s press release has put those plans in flux.

“Everyone is amazed, even the people at the Newseum, at how many people have shown interest in this,” Connell said.

Kentucky universities, like UK and Kentucky State University, are interested in temporarily hosting the statue once it comes back to the Commonwealth from D.C., but nothing is yet definite.

‘Muffled voices’

“I really love to work on projects that tell the untold parts of history,” Matthews said, explaining part of the reason why she started the Artemis Initiative and focuses on honoring women through sculpture.

On Mother’s Day of 2018, Matthews’ figurative bronze statue titled “Katsina the Sacred Dancer” was unveiled in Wellington Park in Lexington, and she is still working on the statue of Nettie Depp that will go in the state Capitol.

Connell said the timing for when Matthews’ started her emphasis on women’s statues was “serendipitous.”

About three weeks after the Artemis Initiative became official; the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights issued a statewide press release asking Kentucky towns to consider putting up statues of women.

And just a few years later, hashtags like #metoo and #shepersisted began popping up more and more on Twitter.

“It kind of tells us that it was time,” Connell said. “I don’t think these sorts of movements happen with one person. They happen with a collective group of people from all parts of the country and all parts of the world kind of feeling the same thing at the same time.”

Matthews said this Dunnigan project has become “much, much more” than she and Connell anticipated.

When Dunnigan was a teacher in Todd County, Kentucky, she apparently noticed that her students were ignorant of the contributions of African Americans to Kentucky history, so she prepared supplemental reading materials for her students.

Matthews is carrying on the same sort of work today.

“[Women] really have become a lesser part of history… because of that, they’ve had a lesser voice, a muffled voice,” Matthews said. “So I like to say it’s my job, I hope it’s my job, to raise up those muffled voices.”

It’s not only about the work of women, but also the work of Kentuckians. As someone who was born, raised and educated in Kentucky, Matthews said she feels “a lot of state pride” while working on this project about another native Kentuckian.

“I really love to tell the stories of women who have grit, women who have passion, women who have purpose, and Kentucky has a lot of those women,” she said.

Matthews said this project has been nothing but delightful.

She and Connell are inching closer to the end of the project, though they will still need to transport Dunnigan around on her yet-to-be-planned tour.

After years of work, it’s coming down to the final few pours, and Matthews is ready to have all of Dunnigan in bronze.

“I tend to be the more nervous one of the two of us when we have a deadline like this,” she said. “I stay nervous till I see all the body parts in bronze, and then I’m like, okay, we’ve got this.”

Soon Dunnigan will stand tall on Pennsylvania Avenue, between the White House and the Capitol, with newspaper in hand.

Matthews said there is no better place for her to be.