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The Hermitage selects Union’s Benson to sculpt slave memorial

The Hermitage. A sculpture by Union art professor Lee Benson will serve as a memorial to 60 slaves at Andrew Jackson's home.
The Hermitage. A sculpture by Union art professor Lee Benson will serve as a memorial to 60 slaves at Andrew Jackson's home.

JACKSON, Tenn.April 9, 2009 – The Hermitage has chosen Union University art professor Lee Benson to sculpt a memorial to 60 slaves recently reinterred on the grounds of Andrew Jackson’s home.

A dozen artists responded to the Hermitage’s open call for sculptors to submit their qualifications to produce such a public work. From the submissions received, the Hermitage chose three finalists to make a specific proposal about their sculptures.

The Hermitage notified Benson in December that his proposal had been selected. He is now working on his sculpture, which will be completed in May.

“I really wanted this piece,” Benson said. “This one was really important to me, because I want to, in the end, stand up and say ‘thank you’ to my dad, who passed away five years ago.”

Benson’s father, Wayne Lee Benson, was a Southern Baptist pastor who “was a complete civil rights leader before there was any such thing as civil rights,” Benson said.

Benson’s sculpture, “Our Peace, Follow the Drinking Gourd,” will consist of seven oak trees in the shape of the Little Dipper constellation, laid out across a circle of 30 boulders. “Follow the Drinking Gourd” is a song slaves would use to teach them how to find and follow the North Star, one of the stars in the Little Dipper, to freedom. The tree that represents the North Star will be surrounded by seven boulders.

“This sculpture was not conceived nor will it be built to make a civil, political, cultural or religious statement on slavery,” Benson said. “It is proposed as a singular declaration of our greater hopes, of a renewing of our faith in one another – a simple but eternal reminder that we are one people and one race: the human race.”

The remains of the 60 slaves had been disinterred from their previous burial site on the grounds of a former plantation near the Hermitage because of a development project. An agreement between the state and the developer led to the bodies being reinterred at the Hermitage.

“We needed to not just put them in the ground and forget about them,” said Howard Kittell, president and CEO of the Hermitage. “We needed a reminder about the people who actually did the work and made the plantation operate.”

Kittell said Benson’s proposal was accepted because of its visual and symbolic appeal.

“There’s this whole sense of eternality, sustainability and life,” Kittell said. “There’s really wonderful symbolism there.

“Visually, it’s very powerful and symbolically, even more powerful.”

The Hermitage will dedicate Benson’s sculpture at a special ceremony May 17.

Media contact: Tim Ellsworth, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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