Frederick Douglass’ Monumental Legacy

This year, the city of Rochester, N.Y., is celebrating the 200th anniversary of Frederick Douglass’ birth. As part of this celebration, Olivia Kim, an adjunct professor in the Rochester Institute of Technology’s (RIT) School of Art, created 13 sculptures of the abolitionist leader with the help of members of the RIT and local communities. The monuments make up a self-guided tour to sites around the city that are significant to Douglass’ life and work. 

Kim recently spoke with INSIGHT Into Diversity about the project and what it means to her. 

[Above: Olivia Kim works on a sculpture with her studio assistant, Princess Tumushabe, and community members.]

What inspired you to create these monuments?

I felt that remembering Douglass’ life story could help the world today. Douglass was a rare historical figure who was lucky enough to see positive change happen within his own lifetime. I think we need to remember that our own individual efforts really can move mountains.

What work went into designing and creating the sculptures?

First, I made a trip to the Special Collections Archives at the University of Rochester (UR) to see all the available images of Douglass. I wanted to see his body language and posture, and I got to study how his face changed over the course of [his life]. I then visited the marble bust of Douglass at UR and the monument by Stanley Edwards in Highland Bowl. [I used] a 3D scan of the original monument … as a general reference for building the [framework]. I manually measured over 80 landmarks to help make my version of an older Frederick Douglass.

Ken Morris Jr., the great, great, great grandson of Douglass, posed for me so that I could begin the clay of Douglass’ head, and I used alginate casts of Morris’ hands to incorporate into the overall sculpture.

Overall, it took nearly two and a half months to sculpt the original clay model, then two to three weeks to make the rubber mold. It took an average of one to two weeks for casting and finishing each sculpture.

What role did the community play in the creation of these monuments?

I put out a call for volunteers on [social media], and over the course of six months, more than 130 people graciously gave their time to help. People ages 8 to 80, from all walks of life and diverse professions, came to help. My studio assistant, Princess Tumushabe, a sophomore majoring in medical illustration at RIT, was instrumental.

What impact do you hope the monuments have?

Olivia Kim speaks at an unveiling event for the monuments.
Olivia Kim speaks at an unveiling event for the monuments.

I hope when people look into the eyes of Douglass, they will find the courage to ask themselves if they truly know what they are. Douglass was able to pierce through the physical and mental bondage that still affects many in our world today. I hope that the members of the Rochester and RIT communities will recognize that we as individuals need to examine ourselves and become accountable for our actions: Do we truly live freely, or are we enslaving ourselves? How can we identify slavery versus freedom? The struggle to understand ourselves and the world around us will surely lead us on a precarious path of self-evolution.

I also hope that the process of making these monuments will show the community the importance of working with your hands. … The act of taking a material and transforming it is very akin to Douglass’ desire to transform our nation.

This article ran in our November 2018 issue.