Women’s History Trail sculpture in final stages

The Women's History Trail sculpture is in its final stages and will eventually be installed next year in Franklin. 

Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer

At the August 1 Town of Franklin Council meeting, Marty Greeble and Mary Polanski presented an update on the Women’s History Trail (WHT) sculpture, a public art piece that has been in process for the last four years. The presentation, titled “Sowing the Seeds of the Future,” provided background on the WHT, as well as the late vice mayor Barbara McRae’s vision for a permanent sculpture to celebrate the history and achievements of women in the area. 

“The reaction from the Council was very positive,” Polanski, who is a WHT project leader with Greeble, reported to the Folk Heritage Association of Macon County board. “This is such an exciting and gratifying time for all who have worked to make ‘Sowing the Seeds’ a reality.” 

Part of the presentation to the Council members involved a proposed timeline regarding the final bronzing stages of the sculpture, the official installation, and the public unveiling festivities – all of which will occur in 2023. 

Internationally renowned sculptor Wesley Wofford, who resides in Cashiers, has been at work since 2018 on the various stages of the sculpture, from drawings to maquette to seven-foot final version. Wofford moved to Cashiers in 2003 with his wife, Odyssey, who is also studio director. Prior to the move to Western North Carolina, Wofford’s interest in advanced translucent silicones led him to develop his own formulas and techniques, which in turn projected him into the Hollywood scene and specifically the makeup effects industry. He has worked on more than 75 motion pictures and television shows, including “A Beautiful Mind,” “Hannibal,” “Batman and Robin,” “The Rock,” and “Collateral.” He also achieved awards for his work, including an Academy Award. 

Currently, Wofford concentrates on commissioned sculpture pieces, and a few years ago, created the nine-foot Harriet Tubman “The Journey to Freedom” sculpture, using Macon County models. The sculpture was permanently installed in a private building in Dallas, Texas. A replica of “The Journey to Freedom” has toured the United States. 

Area models were also selected to represent the three important figures in the WHT sculpture. Sculptor and artist Angela Cunningham modeled Timoxena Siler Sloan, a white woman; Blue Jazz lead singer Delphine Kirkland modeled Sally (last name unknown), a slave; and, Wahlalah Brown of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians modeled Rebecca Morris, a Cherokee woman. The women depicted in the sculpture are of different cultures, yet they played significant parts in the tumultuous years of settlement in Macon County’s history. 

McRae, who was a historian and writer, helped develop WHT, a project of the Folk Heritage Association of Macon County. The trail’s 15 plaques throughout Franklin provide information about how women contributed to the area. For example, a plaque at 266 Harrison Avenue focuses on Arrah Belle Wilson Johnson, the first female editor of The Franklin Press, while at 5 West Main Street is a plaque explaining that Nellie Cleveland West Cook was the first Macon County woman elected to the N.C. House of Representatives. WHT maps – for walking and/or driving tours – can be picked up in Franklin at Crabtree’s on Iotla Street, the Franklin Chamber of Commerce, and the Macon County Historical Museum on West Main.

McRae envisioned a sculpture that would celebrate women’s achievements. While working on the sculpture project, McRae commented, “The Women’s History Trail is about focusing on the contributions of women in Macon County. [The Folk Heritage Association] was intrigued by connected lives uncovered by research we learned about three matriarchal figures: a white woman, an African American woman, and a Cherokee woman.” 

A grassroots campaign raised the necessary funds, mostly from local individuals and businesses, to pay for the $400,000 sculpture; currently, funds are being raised to pay for the sculpture’s final installation and site work costs, which will be around $50,000. Polanski explained that so far about $25,000 has been raised to cover the final expenses. 

To bring accuracy and authenticity to the women represented in the sculpture, Kathryn Sellers, a Franklin-based historic costume designer and seamstress, dressed the models in historically accurate clothing. 

Wofford commented during the staging of the models: “Because a sculpture technically has a forever year shelf life, it’s time consuming to get it right, but it is so important to do so.” Wofford further expressed to Macon County News in a March 12, 2020, article, “I do projects all over the country, but it’s rare I have a geographical or personal connection. I think of myself as a translator, and I love the beauty of what this is saying. It’s inspiring and I’m honored to be a part of it.” 

The sculpture will eventually be installed somewhere near the Nikwasi Mound at the entrance to Franklin on Main Street by the bridges at the Little Tennessee River. 

“All the specifics are evolving,” indicated Polanski, “but recognition of Barbara [McRae] will definitely be part of the celebration. She will also have her own plaque on the Women’s History Trail.” 

Polanski added that at the September Town of Franklin Council meeting is expected official recognition and acceptance of the Folk Heritage Association of Macon County’s gift of the sculpture to the town of Franklin. More information about the sculpture’s 2023 installation and festivities surrounding the unveiling will be forthcoming.