Former SLO sculptor creates historic work

Unveiled in Alabama on Saturday, Elizabeth MacQueen’s work honors the young victims of the 1963 church bombing

slinn@thetribunenews.comSeptember 14, 2013 

Their deaths shocked a nation and catalyzed a movement.

Yet, until now, there has never been an official, full-scale hometown memorial to the four girls slain in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala.

“(This) is a huge, huge thing for the United States,” said sculptor and former San Luis Obispo resident Elizabeth MacQueen, whose memorial, “Four Spirits,” was unveiled Saturday at Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park.

Today’s dedication ceremony at the park, across the street from the church and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, marks the 50th anniversary of the bombing.

Fourteen-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, and their 11-year-old friend, Denise McNair, lost their lives on the morning of Sept. 15, 1963, when a bomb planted by the Ku Klux Klan reduced their church to rubble. 

The explosion marked a turning point in the civil rights movement and helped pave the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But despite its significance, “We have in many ways failed to keep the story alive,” bombing survivor Carolyn McKinstry said.

“It was the death of these girls that really got not only the attention of our nation but the rest of the world,” said McKinstry, who worked with Birmingham attorney Chervis Isom and others to raise about $250,000 for a local memorial. “They did indeed serve as a redemptive force for our city and our state and our nation.”

Local works

An acclaimed sculptor whose works can be found in such exotic locales as Costa Rica and Tunisia, MacQueen is a familiar figure on the Central Coast.

Her contributions to the San Luis Obispo art scene include “Iron Road Pioneers” in Railroad Square, “Follow the Leader” at The Laureate School and “Puck” at the Downtown Centre. 

“San Luis Obispo County’s been really good to me,” the sculptor said, although she no longer lives here. 

MacQueen, who has been “fancy free” for the past five years, with no long-term residence, was passing through Birmingham on her way to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts when she heard about the competition to create a memorial to the bombing victims. 

 “I looked and I went, ‘Oh my god … this is for me. I’ve lived with this all my life,’ ” said MacQueen, who grew up near Birmingham in Mountain Brook, Ala., during the civil rights era. 

McKinstry and her fellow jurors selected MacQueen from six candidates, five of them male. 

“When you looked at her stuff online, it had such quality, such excellence of standard to it,” said McKinstry, who also appreciated MacQueen’s sensitive treatment of her subjects. 

“Four Spirits,” which takes its title from Sena Jeter Naslund’s novel of the same name about the bombing, features a quartet of life-size bronze statues — cast by Berkeley’s Artworks Foundry — grouped around a bronze and stainless steel bench. 

One girl looks up from a book — the inscription, “A Love That Forgives,” was the theme of the Sunday school lesson and sermon the day of the bombing — while another urges her friends to come to the church service. 

A third girl ties the bow on the dress of her friend, who reaches for six doves ascending to the skies. 

According to MacQueen, the doves represent the four girls as well as two young men killed the same day in Birmingham. Thirteen-year-old Virgil Ware was shot by a white teen, while 16-year-old Johnny Robinson was gunned down by a police officer — reportedly while throwing rocks at a car displaying a Confederate flag. 

“The first thing I really, really wanted was that (the memorial) would be interactive,” MacQueen explained. “I didn’t want them on pedestals. I wanted people to put their arm around them, to hug them, to kiss them, like I’ve done … countless times.”

She also endeavored to depict the girls accurately, a tricky task considering she had only black-and-white headshots to work from. 

“To have one photograph (per girl) was horribly frustrating for someone who likes perfection, like myself,” said MacQueen, who usually works from live models and multiple photographs when depicting deceased people. She even gleans clues from clothes and shoes, because they indicate that person’s size.

In this case, she said, “I just had to go with my instinct and think about what each girl was like individually.” 

MacQueen also consulted with McKinstry, who wrote about the girls in her memoir, “While the World Watched: A Birmingham Bombing Survivor Comes of Age During the Civil Rights Movement,” and Diane McWhorter, author of “Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution.” In addition, she watched Spike Lee’s documentary about the bombing, “4 Little Girls.” 

MacQueen described the process of creating the memorial as mentally and physically exhausting. 

In order to finish “Four Spirits” in time, she had to shave months off her usual schedule and put “For Those Who Wait,” the memorial she’s making for the Central Coast Women for Fisheries, on hold.  

She even set up a temporary bedroom at Artworks Foundry. Between the noise, “the intensity and the plain physical fatigue,” she said, “It has just been living in hell.” 

Personal cause

Ultimately, MacQueen said, “Four Spirits” is an expression of her “absolutely deep, deep tenderness and commitment to justice,” traits she’s had since childhood. 

“For this (memorial) to be done by a white girl from Mountain Brook … is absolutely poetic,” she said. “We are all interconnected, and the sooner we understand that, the better place this entire world will be.”

The memorial also holds special significance for McKinstry and her fellow Four Spirits Inc. organizers.

“It says that the girls did not die in vain,” McKinstry said. “It says that Birmingham has evolved, that there is a very strong sense of spirit of reconciliation here.” 

After today, MacQueen plans to take four weeks off to visit friends in Europe before returning to Thailand to finish “For Those Who Wait.” She’s working with a bronze foundry just outside  Bangkok. 

When completed, that memorial — which depicts a mother and two children bidding farewell to a departing fisherman — will be installed in Morro Bay.

“I just think that is way overdue,” MacQueen said.

Find out more

Elizabeth MacQueen:

“Four Spirits”:

Central Coast Women for Fisheries:

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