Breaking The Bronze Ceiling: Loveland Artist Aims To Bring Suffragette Sculpture To D.C.

Aug 19, 2019

One of the biggest projects in sculptor Jane DeDecker's career is happening now because of something that didn't happen last year.

DeDecker was a finalist for the Monumental Women's Statue project in New York City — Central Park's first historical sculpture depicting a woman. Artists were asked to submit designs for a monument honoring Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, pioneers of the suffragette movement.

But as DeDecker researched Stanton and Anthony for the project, she learned more about others crucial to the movement, like Sojourner Truth and Harriot Stanton Blatch.

"I didn't win the competition," DeDecker said. "But my piece just grew and got a life of its own. I was so inspired by their work."

Eventually six women were added to her bronze sculpture, including Alice Paul and Ida B. Wells. Various versions of it can be found throughout her Loveland studio, including a very large clay model.

"It barely fits here," DeDecker said. "It will be 21 feet tall and my ceiling's 18 (feet high) so I'm having to sculpt it in sections. So I'll be climbing up and down the scaffolding for the next ... 10 months I have to try to get it sculpted."

Artist Jane DeDecker and friend Jody Shadduck McNally started the nonprofit Every Word We Utter to raise funds to get the sculpture installed as a commemorative work in Washington D.C.
Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC

For now, that deadline — in time for the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment — is a self-imposed one.

"When she showed me this piece last year, I was so moved," said DeDecker's longtime friend Jody Shadduck-McNally. "When we realized it wasn't going to go to New York City's Central Park, I said, 'Jane, this piece is meant to be somewhere prominent to help inspire future generations and also to teach this history.' It's not taught or told in most of our history books."

And what's a more prominent and inspirational place than among the other historical monuments in Washington D.C.?

"We knocked on 97 out of 100 Senate doors and we talked to anyone who would listen to tell about our project," Shadduck-McNally said.

That included Colorado senators Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet and Rep. Joe Neguse. They've introduced bills HR-473 and S-1705 to get DeDecker's monument approved under the Commemorative Works Act.

"We're kind of following in their footsteps," DeDecker said. "They had to get this bill together and work on this legislation to get the 19th Amendment to happen and we're ... working through some of the same actions, getting the legislative help and knocking on doors. So we feel like it's sort of a little bit like their grassroots movement getting this to happen."

There's a lot more to getting a public artwork approved than you might realize. There are meetings with the National Planning Commission and the Fine Arts Commission as well as with engineers for the environmental and traffic studies that have to be conducted on proposed sites.

To help, Shadduck-McNally and DeDecker started the non-profit group Every Word We Utter. Named after the sculpture, the organization is aimed at raising awareness for the project, along with the more than $1 million needed to complete the artwork.

DeDecker reattaches a portion of the plaster maquette.
Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC

There's also the intense effort that goes into making the sculpture, including the various models, called maquettes, and the 3,000-pound clay sculpture that will be used to cast the final bronze piece.

When asked if it's hard to put in so much effort towards something that might not happen, DeDecker said she just thinks about the suffragettes and how many of them, including Susan B. Anthony, died before the 19th Amendment was ratified, never even getting the chance to vote.

"I think we will find a place for it," she said. "I really feel like it needs to be in D.C. because they did change the Constitution and they stormed those halls and 41 times they went to introduce their bill and were denied."

Less than 10% of public art in the U.S. is dedicated to historical women. The National Parks Service has more than 150 sculptures and less than a handful commemorate women from American history. DeDecker said that's not enough.

"There's a great quote that if a young girl reads a book without women's history (in it) she feels like she's worth less, and I really feel like that's true," she said. "We have to do this for younger women, so they feel valuable."

It's a bit like a line from a letter Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote in 1880 — the one that inspired DeDecker's name for the sculpture.

"'Every word we utter, every act we perform, waft unto innumerable circles, beyond,'" DeDecker said. "She just felt like any movement that we do — the energy that we put into something — younger women and other people will feel."