Legacy Day will be celebrated in Chestertown on August 20 and 21. This annual event focuses on the experiences and contributions of African Americans in Kent County. The 2021 event recognizes “Outstanding African American Athletes of Kent County.”
The sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle is internationally famous for her larger-than-life sculptures of multi-racial strong and rotund women. In 1993 she was commissioned to sculpt male figures by the newly founded Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland. The museum was founded on the initiative of Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the IOC. Forty-three famous artists created sculptures representing official sports of the Olympics for the extensive grounds of the Museum. De Saint Phalle’s “Football” (1993), known in America as soccer, depicts two brightly clothed male figures engaging in a well-executed football maneuver to keep the ball. Typical of de Saint Phalle’s style, the figures are rotund with undefined faces. They wear de Saint Phalles’s uniquely colored and patterned shorts, t-shirts, and socks. One figure is white and the other black, in keeping with her female figures that are multinational and fulfilling the Museum’s intention to represent the international significance of the Olympics. The sculpture is placed on a lawn overlooking Lake Geneva.
De Saint Phalle was born in Paris and lived in New York from 1933 to 1951. She moved back to Europe in 1952, and she lived in various cities until 1994, when she and her family moved to La Jolla, California in 1994, on her doctor’s advice. While in San Diego in 1998, she was inspired by her bi-racial great grandson Djamal to produce the “Black Heroes” series. De Saint Phalle remembered her childhood when she had no heroes for a frame of reference. She decided to create for her great grandson a series of black cultural heroes. Figures of Louis Armstrong, Josephine Baker, and Miles Davis were included with the sports figures.
“#23” (1999) (fiber glass and mosaic) is a basketball player whose head and face are simply a rounded skull shape. However, the figure bear’s a resembles to Michael Jordan as he leaps in the air to make a “slam dunk.” He wears shiny red glass mosaic trunks and a multicolored patterned t-shirt. He is raised high in the air by a shiny silver figure, but the silver figure can be easily dismissed, allowing the viewer to focus on the strength and flight of #23. This distinguishing pose can be attributed to Michael Jordan, but several other famous sports figures wore the number 23, including basketball legend LeBron James.
The statue of the baseball player “19” (1999) is readily identifiable, particularly by San Diegonians who are fans of the Padres. Anthony Keith Gwynn, Sr., nicknamed “Mr. Padre,” was the much beloved Padre right fielder who played for 20 seasons. Posed in a batter’s stance, Gwynn was a left-handed batter who won eight batting titles in his career, becoming one of baseball’s all-time best single hitters. The statue of Gwynn does not wear the Padres uniform; it is dressed in de Saint Phalle’s signature colorful outfit. De Saint Phalle loved San Diego: and “19” is located at the San Diego Waterfront Park, and the Niki Charitable Art Foundation is also located in San Diego.
“Tiger Woods” (2001) won his second Masters title in 2001. Photographs show him lifting his right leg up in the air, flinging his right arm up in a victory salute, his mouth open to yell in triumph. De Saint Phalle’s statue imitates this pose. Tiger’s pants, not the black ones he actually wore, shine with blue and silver mosaic, but Tiger’s shirt is bright red. The Black Heroes Series, as well as other de Saint Phalle works, were exhibited in 2008 at the Missouri Botanical Gardens.
Niki de Saint Phalle was an extremely popular artist whose works fill viewers with a sense of strength, courage., and outright joy. She is able to present her rotund figures as triumphant. Despite their great size and wildly colorful costumes, they all seem to rise weightlessly above the fray. De Saint Phalle was very generous with her time and her art, and she left the Niki Charitable Art Foundation in San Diego to continue supporting the arts and artists after her death. She also left her personal collection of over 1,000 sculptures and 5,000 graphic works to the Foundation.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.