Sculptor honors two women trailblazers

Published by Deborah Highland, May 6th, 2017; Bowling Green Daily News 

A Lexington-based sculptor dedicated to memorializing the achievements of women is creating two life-size bronze portraits of southcentral Kentucky women who left indelible marks in history.

Amanda Matthews, president of the board and founder of the Artemis Initiative – a nonprofit organization devoted to creating public art to elevate the status of women, children and minorities – is creating a bronze sculpture of the late Nettie Depp, the first woman who ran for public office in Barren County. She was elected as county schools superintendent in 1913, seven years before the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteed women the right to vote. Matthews is also creating a sculpture of the late Russellville native Alice Dunnigan, who was the first African-American woman to obtain White House press credentials. Dunnigan was the daughter of a sharecropper. She became a teacher, a nationally recognized journalist and civil rights activist.

"I have a long history of creating art that is not heavy-handed and at a minimum tells a part of history that is typically left out," said Matthews, who has family in Bowling Green and Barren County. "My idea has always been to tell a more complete story of history. A lot of women and minorities have unfortunately been left out of that complete telling of history. I have a long, long history of work that is along this vein."

Matthews hopes to have the Depp statue placed inside the Capitol in Frankfort. If she is successful, the statue will be the first statue of a woman in the Capitol. The state Historic Properties Advisory Commission met recently to discuss the statue and its placement. Matthews has been working on the project for three years and, in addition to the Historic Properties Advisory Committee, she has consulted with the Kentucky Commission on Women since 2014.

"There are so many women who deserve to be honored," Matthews said. "Our first female governor is probably the most deserving. But we have laws in Kentucky that you cannot be honored with a statue in the Capitol unless you have been dead for 40 years. Women's history in the political realm is not as deep and not as vast compared with men's history. That alone eliminates a lot of women.

"That was where we started. The commission on women decided who they thought would be best honored in the Capitol," Matthews said. "We were not trying to honor a woman in the rotunda. We never did ask for this particular project to be in the rotunda. We wanted to specifically leave the rotunda alone but make sure this person is honored where the school children came through."

She became interested in creating the Depp statue after learning that statues honoring women are rare around the state. In 2015, the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights passed a resolution encouraging state and local governments to erect in places of honor statues of women of historical significance. 

While studying gender issues, Matthews, who is distantly related to Depp, learned about the lack of public statues commemorating women's achievements and set out on a course of change. First that led to her work on Depp and then to Dunnigan.

"There are many women throughout Kentucky's history and in our present day who have worked to improve the lives of everyone and who have made remarkable accomplishments, and it is absolutely fitting that they be honored and venerated with memorial sculptures and statues in any way possible to recognize them as they should be," said Victoria Stephens, communications director for the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights.

Russellville attorney Gran Clark, a board member of the West Kentucky African American Heritage Center, read about Matthews' work on the Depp project and reached out to her about creating a bronze likeness of Dunnigan.

"It's really the first public art project that Russellville has had, especially at this quality and significance," Clark said.

"That's one of the reasons it's important to be a groundbreaking project as far as that's concerned. I think it's also important it ties visual art with the history of our community and that combination creates a very effective way pass on the history and let people understand it and feel the emotion of it and learn from it.

"Sometimes history is more textbook. To have it in an art form adds another level of emotion and understanding of history. To be able to honor Miss Dunnigan is especially important because she is one of those figures that has been overlooked, didn't make it to the regular textbook. But her story is an important story that needs to be shared. She was a groundbreaker, being female and African-American, coming from a humble background, excelling in education and then achieving national recognition and significance."

Dunnigan was born in Russellville in 1906. When she was 14 years old, she had a weekly column in an Owensboro newspaper. After teaching briefly in southcentral Kentucky, she moved to Washington, D.C., and became a reporter for the Associated Negro Press and became the first African-American woman elected to the Women's National Press Club. She has been inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame.

Dunnigan covered the presidential campaign of Harry Truman and was the first black woman to travel with a U.S. president, doing so during Truman's 1948 Whistle Stop Tour of western states. When she covered the funeral of Sen. Robert Taft, she was not allowed to sit with white journalists and instead had to cover the funeral while seated with the servants.

"She made it possible for African-Americans to report on Congress, the D.C. police, the Supreme Court and the president," said Michael Morrow, a board member of the West Kentucky African American Heritage Center.

Dunnigan was well-known and widely avoided by some politicians of her time who didn't want to answer her questions about civil rights. When President John F. Kennedy gave his first speech, she was the first reporter he called on, Morrow said.

"Not only did she work as a journalist, she had positions with the federal government to enforce equal employment opportunities and to help monitor and implement the civil rights legislation," Clark said. "One of her contemporaries and close friends was Thurgood Marshall, who was on the Supreme Court.

"We're excited about it. The majority of the funding was donated by the (E. Rhodes and Leona B.) Carpenter Foundation, a non profit associated with Carpenter factory in Russellville. It wouldn't have been possible without the help of a significant donation from them."

The Dunnigan sculpture will be done within a year and will likely travel the country before being permanently installed in Russellville. The Depp project is taking a little longer due to the decision on the final placement, Matthews said.

The West Kentucky African American Heritage Center wants to see the Dunnigan statue travel to Washington because of Dunnigan's importance on the national stage. It will be permanently installed at some point in a memorial park in honor of her achievements. 

"At a time when the press is under attack by political figures ... it shows the importance of journalism and the difficult relationship between the press and politics. It shows the persistence and fight she had," Clark said of Dunnigan.

​© 2015 by The Artemis Initiative, a Public Charity Organization exempt under IRS Code, Section 501(c)(3).

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