Wisconsin's Lady "Forward": history offers hope

“Forward” caught my eye recently. She strides outside the State Capitol building in Madison Wisconsin; “Forward” being the state’s motto, and also an allegorical sculpture positioned outside the Wisconsin State Capitol building. Miss Forward, as she is sometimes called, was sculpted by Jean Pond Miner for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, and was moved to Madison’s capitol two years later.

When I lived in Madison, I visited the Capitol frequently. Lady “Forward” was part of the landscape. I’d usually walk by, glance up at her extended hand, and think a fleeting, somewhat dismissive thought about the quaintness of 19th Century allegorical artwork.

This time though, I stopped. There she was as she had always been – well, except for the colorful woven bracelets gracing her extended wrist. But now I saw her through a different lens – historical perspective can do that for you.

Also, a sense of irony.

Forward. Wisconsin’s state motto. Odd that today the state’s political leadership is so backward. Not all of them certainly, but in too many ways politicians of my home state are the epicenter of the worst ideas –  teaming up with misogynist racists and homophobes to raid the treasury and undermine justice – attacking the poor, the learned, and women.

Irony aside though, a broadened historical perspective, more informed appreciation for the courage in women’s expression, especially in the 19th and early 20th Century, and a keen awareness of the dramatic feat of creative production that was the World’s Columbian Exposition, brought this sculpture to me anew.

“Forward” takes a solid, sure stride. She reaches high, the energy of her gesture embodied and extended in the deep dramatic folds of her garment.. Strong feet support her. There is bold force here to reckon with.

At the time of the Columbian Exposition, women were moving – often on their own – leaving the shelter of family to find work and independence in teeming urban centers like Chicago. Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie” captures the culture, the stakes and the courage of these women.

Wisconsinite Jean Pond Miner was one of two artists-in-residence in the Wisconsin building at the Columbian Exposition, and created the sculpture under commission from a group of Wisconsin women. Fellow Wisconsinite, Helen Farnsworth Mears, also artist-in-residence in the Wisconsin building, produced  the allegorical “The Genius of Wisconsin”, a marble representation depicting a woman beside an eagle on a rock. “Genius” is displayed today inside the State Capitol building; another women’s artwork I would frequently pass during my visits to the Capitol. Mears’ sculptural portrait of American Suffragist and Temperance leader Frances Willard was the first commission by a woman placed in the U.S. Capitol, where it joined portraits of other great American leaders in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall.

Jean Pond Miner’s “Forward” has been described as representing women’s suffrage, and also the ‘spirit of Wisconsin’. it’s been said that Miner formed “Forward” as an allegory of the devotion and progress she believed her state embodied. One story says the sculpture rose from a disaster in Miner’s studio when a power loss destroyed another sculpture she’d planned to cast and she created “Forward” instead.

Allegory, a lasting form of artistic expression, was especially popular at the time of Chicago’s exposition. Lorado Taft, who taught both Miner and Mears at the Chicago Art Institute, was a leading practitioner. His “Fountain of Time” graced the Midway Plaisance of the Columbian Exposition, and remains today as one of Chicago’s great works of public art.

Allegorical artworks use imagery to call to mind deep, overarching themes. The Statue of Liberty, to which “Forward” bears resemblance, holds high a beacon of light in the darkness. She calls to mind courage, strength, grace, and the guiding principles of shared humanity.

These ideas can sound trite when put into words, and their visible forms are sometimes dismissed (as by by own, younger self) as simplistic or shallow. And yet, these works hold their sway.

Today I notice the marks of the artist’s hand. The evidence of pounding and forming of clay and bronze. The weight of “Forward’s” billowing robe is powerful and inspiring, evidence of a strong body within. Today maybe “Forward” is an allegory for the work required by representative democracy. The present crisis of our political reality didn’t start with the 2016 Presidential race, but has been building for years. It will take years of attention and effort to turn this backwardness back around.

“Forward” is proof there’s hope.


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