Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer
For the past two years, renowned sculptor Wesley Wofford, who resides in Cashiers, has been at work on the various stages of a Women’s History Trail sculpture, which will eventually be installed somewhere near the Nikwasi Mound at the Little Tennessee River. Most recently, models were selected to represent the three important figures in the sculpture.
Sculptor and artist Angela Cunningham will model Timoxena Siler Sloan, a white woman; Blue Jazz lead singer Delphine Kirkland will model Salley (last name unknown), a slave; and, Wahlalah Brown of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians will model Rebecca Morris, a Cherokee woman.
Barbara McRae, vice mayor for the Town of Franklin, who is on the leadership team for the Women’s History Trail, a project of the Folk Heritage Association of Macon County, said Wofford refers to the sculpture as “Sowing Seeds for the Future” because it shows the Cherokee figure, Rebecca, pouring corn into the hands of little Timoxena, and the grown Timoxena taking a basket of corn and apples from Salley, the African American. “I tend to call it ‘Three Women,’ for short,” said McRae.
Wofford was commissioned in 2018 as the sculptor for the project and has so far created a marquette and is working on the next stages of the project, which will be a third-scale model possibly by this summer and full-size figures by this fall. A grassroots campaign to raise funds to pay for the more than $300,000 sculpture has generated donations not only from the Town of Franklin, but also from local philanthropists and individuals, and ongoing monies contributed through volunteer-organized sales of cookies, native plants, lemonade, books, etc.
Wofford said the process of finding the models to represent important historic figures for the sculpture has been “serendipitous.” He has already discussed individually with each model such aspects as clothing, hair styles, poses, etc.
Cunningham, who has lived in Asheville for the past seven years, met Wofford through a sculptor friend. “When I learned about him and his work, I wanted to meet him,” she said. “His studio in Cashiers is amazing; he was super personable and showed me the Women’s History Trail marquette and explained a little about the project.”
A few weeks later, Wofford contacted Cunningham to ask her if she would be interested in modeling for Timoxena. “Instantly I said ‘yes.’ I know how hard it can be to find a model, and when you find someone to fit the part, it’s great.” Cunningham, 42, paints and sculpts out of her home and in a space at The Mills at Riverside in Asheville. Plus, she has begun assisting Wofford on some projects and may assist on the Women’s History Trail sculpture. She pointed out that both modeling for and working on a sculpture that will include her likeness will be an “interesting” endeavor, but she said, “I’m pregnant for the piece, and I’ve never been pregnant before, so my family is getting a kick out of it. It’s a beautiful marquette already and it’s going to be such a great and beautiful thing for Franklin. I’m really impressed. I’ve never worked on my own on a piece that big, so for me it’s a really great learning experience, and I am looking forward to all I will learn from Wesley.”
“I told my husband I’m literally going to be in Franklin forever,” quipped Kirkland, soon after she was asked by McRae to be the model for Salley. “I’m a history buff, write historical fiction, and have an interesting history growing up in South Carolina. So I didn’t have to think about whether or not I wanted to do this. Although there isn’t a lot of history about her specifically, I am able to help fill in because of my knowledge and background. And, despite the circumstances of her being a slave, I want to honor her.”
Besides wardrobe, a main consideration for the accuracy of portraying Salley involves hair. “It’s a big deal. She’s being presented as on her ‘day off’ so she will be wearing clothing that is different from the traditional slave uniform, so her hair would be different as well.”
Brown and her family have been involved for many years in educational outreach through historic clothing and living history demonstrations at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and at schools, colleges, and organizations throughout the Southeast.
“I was super excited when they asked me to model,” she said. “Not just anyone gets to model for a sculpture.” Her father, Diamond Brown Jr., now deceased, modeled for sculptures, and sister Dakota, has modeled for a bust. Both Brown and her sister were also chosen recently by an Australian muralist to be featured in various works.
Brown said Wofford and his wife, Odyssey, who is studio director for Wofford Sculpture Studio, “had a general understanding of the time period, but we [Dakota and her mother, Sandra Brown] were able to talk about how the baby would be tied on or how the belt should hang. Details are important.”
Brown said she realizes the process is long. “I’ve never done a statue before, but I understand modeling for it may take a year or more.”
She added, “It’s important to me to keep history alive. Not everyone on the reservation does this stuff, but many do. I wore my first authentic outfit when I was 10, so it’s been a part of my life and my family’s life. I know others who might work full time during the day, but then come home at night and do bead work, or make baskets, or make a ribbon skirt. That’s what is so cool about Cherokee culture. We hang onto it … anything tied to our people that we can hang onto.”
Very shortly, the three models will gather for one of the first “dress rehearsals.”
“We are in the process of having their wardrobes built for them,” said Wofford.
Kathryn Sellers, Franklin-based historic costume designer and seamstress, is assisting to make certain that clothing is historically accurate. Brown’s mother is hand-making her daughter’s clothing. Others are involved in the process of bringing the clothing to fruition.
“It was the 1700s time period, after European contact,” said Sandra “Sandy” Brown, referring to the clothing her daughter will wear. She explained that she learned to make period clothing for their part-time educational endeavors. She is a finger weaver using plant fibers, and she has made buckskin leggings, finger-woven belts, pucker-toe moccasins, and much more.
“As soon as the clothing is completed, I will bring all the models into the studio and do some preliminary sessions and photographs,” said Wofford. “The broad-stroke of this process is that you’re essentially building a representation of history, so you want it to be authentic. There is a lot of front-end history we have to learn about … expressing the different cultures within the piece authentically and honorably. You don’t want to put someone in clothing that doesn’t make sense. These three women are representing individual women but also three entire cultural populations.”
Wofford added, “This project specifically has more history involved and it’s fascinating for me. Because a sculpture technically has a forever shelf life, it’s time consuming to get it right, but it is so important to do so.”