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Nebraska sculptor will be first African American with work displayed in Statuary Hall


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: A major attraction for visitors to Washington, D.C., is the National Statuary Hall Collection housed in the United States Capitol Building.

It honors two notable people from each state, most of whom are white and male. Nebraska will soon help diversify that collection, both with the subject of its sculpture and with the artists creating it.

Special correspondent Cat Wise has the story for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Cat Wise: In this unassuming warehouse in Midtown Omaha, sculptor Littleton Alston is primed to make history. His studio is dotted with models of past projects, works that are now on public display across Nebraska, the state he's called home for over 30 years.

From Martin Luther King Jr. to football legend Gale Sayers, his statues are changing the face of those we put on pedestals.

Littleton Alston, Sculptor: I want to lift up the voice of the African American community through my work.

I know that there are stories to be told about our contribution to humanity that may at some point inspire that little kid that I was to stop and have that lightning moment.

Cat Wise: Alston grew up in Washington, D.C., in the 1960s and 70's in a neighborhood that felt world's away from the grandeur of the U.S. Capitol.

Littleton Alston: D.C. at that time was very polarized. We grew up in what they call the ghetto. It sounds like a cliche, but it did exist, and it was pretty isolated.

Cat Wise: As a child one summer, Alston remembers walking to the corner store when something caught his eye.

Littleton Alston: If you stand on East Capitol Street and you look towards downtown, on a clear day, you could see the Capitol Dome just a little bit.

So, I said to my brother, David, we're going to go there. So, we got our bikes. We rode straight down East Capitol Street that next morning. And we would look at all of these figures, and it knocked me out. I had seen things I had never seen before. It was like a different planet.

Cat Wise: The figures Alston admired that day were almost entirely white men. Just four women were in the Statuary Hall Collection in 1970, and there were no statues of African Americans.

But that's slowly changing. Since 2000, 10 states have replaced their statues, including Nebraska. In 2019, the state unveiled a likeness of Chief Standing Bear, who, 140 years earlier, successfully argued in an Omaha court that Native Americans are people in the eyes of the law.

He will soon be joined by a statue of celebrated early 20th Century author Willa Cather, who was raised in Nebraska and is known for her novels about life on the Great Plains.

Littleton Alston: History teaches us so much, and we learn from history. And I think we grow from it. And that's what were seeing with the change-out.

Cat Wise: Alston eagerly applied for the Cather Commission.

Littleton Alston: I connected to her life, her being a writer and an artist. And when I won, it had rounded a circle, putting a piece into the U.S. Capitol, a place I had gone as a child, no idea of what a sculptor was. It just moved me to tears.

Cat Wise: Alston credits his mother for much of his success. Recognizing his artistic talents at a young age, she sought to find him a spot at what is now the prestigious Duke Ellington School for the Arts in Washington's wealthy Georgetown neighborhood.

Littleton Alston: I had to learn how to take the bus, do three transfers, and go all the way across to Georgetown every single day to go to school, because, to me, Duke Ellington was like Oz.

I was leaving violence. I was leaving pressure. I was leaving aggression. And I was going to a place where I was amongst others that could create.

Cat Wise: Alston will be the first African American artist to contribute to Statuary Hall in its over 160-year history.

Littleton Alston: I'm not making a doll. I'm actually making a human form.

Cat Wise: His work on the Cather sculpture was captured by Nebraska Public Media for its documentary "A Sculpted Life."

Littleton Alston: Research is critical. You have to pull as many images as possible from many angles. I put together a compilation of images. I usually fill the wall with images. You're trying to capture the soul of the person you are working from.

Cat Wise: Like her sculptor, Cather strove to capture the humanity of her subjects, and that's what set her writing apart and gave it staying power, says scholar Andy Jewell.

Andrew Jewell, University of Nebraska-Lincoln: I grew up in Nebraska, and, initially, I avoided Cather's work because I had a lot of assumptions about it.

I thought it would be boring prairie stuff and pioneers. I didn't want that. But then I actually read it, and I realized that it was about a depth and poignancy of emotion and experience more than it was about any individual region. It's about human life that happened to be set in this place that Cather knew.

Cat Wise: Jewell read me a passage from the 1935 novel "Lucy Gayheart." Partly set in small-town Nebraska, he says it captures Cather's straightforward, but emotionally powerful style.

Andrew Jewell: "In little towns, lives roll along so close to one another. Loves and hates and beat about, their wings almost touching. On the sidewalks along which everybody comes and goes, you must,if you walk abroad at all, at some time pass within a few inches of the man who cheated and betrayed you or the woman you desire more than anything else in the world. Her skirt brushes against you.

"You say good morning and go on. It's a close shave. Out in the world, the escapes are not so narrow."

Cat Wise: Cather was one of the most widely read authors of her time. Her 1922 novel, "One of Ours," won a Pulitzer Prize. And other novels, like "My Antonia" and "O Pioneers!," have long been required reading in schools across the country.

But in recent decades, critics have pointed out shortcomings in how she represented race.

Andrew Jewell: She was a woman of her time. And she didn't represent Native American life well. She did not represent African American life well or frequently. And I think that's good to readers to contend with the fact that she has a power, and there are some things that are not perfect about her.

Cat Wise: A 21st century lens has also helped scholars redefine a key relationship in Cather's life. For almost forty years, Cather lived with her partner, Edith Lewis. Lewis was also a key editor of Cather's work.

Andrew Jewell: These are corrected typescripts. They're not in Willa Cather's handwriting. They're in the handwriting of her partner, Edith Lewis, who was a professional editor.

I think, without any reasonable doubt, that Cather and Edith Lewis had a long and loving relationship together. In her lifetime, people weren't able to see what was right in their face, which was that these two women chose to live together. They traveled together. They spent their lives together.

Cather just insisted on being who she was. It is that independent spirit, combined with unpretentiousness and depth of humanity, that I think is a terrific representation for Nebraska.

Littleton Alston: I wanted her moving through time. I wanted a sense of her writing, a sense of her vision, carrying on beyond just the time in which she wrote it.

Cat Wise: These models in Alston's studio are the closest we were able to get to the Cather sculpture. The completed seven-foot bronze is in storage near Washington, awaiting an unveiling expected next year.

Littleton Alston: I think that moment when it's accepted in, I will be that kid again.

There was no path cut for me. I had to cut that path. It's going to be a culmination of all of those years. I can tell you this much. Willa will hold her own in that collection. She will hold her own. And I hope all of the young girls who want to be writers can look at that and know that there's a hero in that collection for them.

Cat Wise: A pioneering woman sculpted by a pioneer in his own right.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Cat Wise in Omaha, Nebraska.

Judy Woodruff: And, as Littleton Alston put it, the culmination of all those years.

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