Erik Durant has been capturing the human form, facial expressions, and themes that run the gamut from mythology to real-life situations for many years. In his studio works, he can be free to explore subject matter as he pleases. When it comes to commissioned pieces the pressure is on to get it right, but finding out what right is can be elusive.
When the Celebrate Elizabeth Taber Committee headed up by Judith Rosbe selected Durant to create the statue that will be celebrated and unveiled at 11:00 am Saturday, October 17, in Bicentennial Park across Spring Street from the Marion Town House, he was given a packet of research materials that the group had collected and pictures that were as he described “an amalgamation” of images. “There was little to go on outside what she had done,” he confessed in a recent interview with The Wanderer.
Taber’s history was researched for the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s “Lighting the Way: Historic Women of the Southcoast” program. In that published biography, we are told that Taber was born in Marion in 1791 and died in Marion in 1888. She was very religious and left Marion for New Bedford when she married Stephen Pitcher, settling into domesticity.
Yet Taber would know sorrow and loneliness from the loss of all three of her children before they reached the age of 6 and her husband who died shortly after the Civil War. She withdrew from society living a sober, quiet life in her County Street home for many years. But she certainly spent considerable time studying financial matters.
It is due to her wise investments in railroads and mills that she was able to amass a great fortune, giving a lion’s share to her beloved Town of Marion. She funded not only the building of her preferred Christian faith, the First Congregational Church, but also the library that bears her name, and the Music Hall. Taber also funded the Marion Natural History Museum and founded Tabor Academy. All this earned her the nickname of Marion’s Fairy Godmother. To clarify, Tabor (note “o” not “e”) Academy is named after Mount Tabor in Palestine, not after its benefactor.
Taber brought education, culture, art, and music to a community that continues to benefit from all her gifts.
How to capture in a face, in the position of a seated human body that bears age and has experienced the highs and lows of life, how to distill a fleeting gesture, how to bring together all that Taber embodied – that was Durant’s challenge.
Durant’s public works, with the exception of the squid which rises gaily above the gallery space at the NBWM, are full of emotion. “The committee wanted her to be warm,” he confided, saying that he sought to capture an expression that one might have when alone, sitting on a bench, lost in private thoughts. “Maybe in this sculpture she is thinking about what she has done or what she wants to do next.” He imagined her surveying all she has done in a casual pose, in a candid moment when no one is looking.
The artist may have struggled a bit seeking, teasing out the person behind the bits and pieces he was able to cobble together of the real person. “How much can you trust the photography?” was a question Durant grappled with during the early sketches and clay models. “She looks so stern in the image.” He knew there was more there than was meeting his eye.
“There was a narrative, what I was looking at was just the cover of the book,” he said. “People have a concept of a face, even their own, but it might not be the same as what someone else will see.”
Over the course of about two years, all the elements Durant sought to bring together glacially moved into position.
Durant knew from local accounts that Taber was seen around town smoking a pipe. Adding that detail provoked a bit of discussion, but in the end, the pipe helped to humanize Taber, pull her out of the historical context into humanity. “When you are given a few sentences about a person you grab onto it; she was a person, she was maybe the type of woman she wanted to be … that can resonate with us today.” He said that there is a misperception that Victorian-age people were all prim and proper. “That pipe made her a regular person.”
Durant’s Taber is seated in a natural posture, a comfortable position, possibly defying polite edicts of how a woman was to sit when in public once again bringing the idea of a real person to the fore. The statue is life-size of a woman of about 5-foot-4-in height, clothed in period dress but not fussy or formal attire. Durant researched clothing at the NBWM to get a sense of what everyday wear in the 19th century might have looked like. “When you sit down beside her, you’ll be able to look her in the eye,” he said with a smile in his voice.
According to Tinker Saltonstall, the Celebrate Elizabeth Taber Committee will turn over the statue to the Town of Marion at Saturday’s ceremony. Sippican Historical Society coordinated the fundraising effort and, according to Rosbe, the Elizabeth Taber Statue Committee chairperson, donated $50,000 to the effort. Tabor Academy donated $10,000, and private donors contributed to a total topping $175,000.
Between 10:00 am and 1:00 pm, Spring Street will be closed to traffic between Cottage and Main streets. Saturday’s event will be held rain or shine.
By Marilou Newell