Visual Language of Drama
In the nearly 8.5 foot tall Unwavering Courage in the Pursuit of Freedom, Mario Chiodo deployed a visual language rooted in dynamic gesture, swirling forms, and emotional expression to convey the human drama of the Underground Railroad. The artist described the bronze multi figure statue as a “360 degree storytelling monument” rooted in the indomitable courage of Harriet Tubman. “This monument includes Thomas Garrett, a Quaker abolitionist who provided supplies and a safe haven for travelers. In her arms, Tubman carries a young child she drugged so it would sleep quietly and not reveal their presence to bounty hunters. Traveling during winter only at night, exhausted, cold, and bewildered fugitives are slipping, and sliding in the snow, following Tubman’s lead.”
Chiodo researched Tubman’s life story, turning to late nineteenth-century photographs of her and Sarah H. Bradford’s biographies. The artist portrayed the iconic Tubman, an older, deeply experienced human being, life’s sorrows engraved on her face. She is depicted as supernatural in her concentration and effort to lead the freedom seekers to safety. Standing tall and erect in her bare feet, Tubman looks beyond to that which Garrett and the two freedom seekers cannot see. Behind Tubman flows an enormous piece of “cloth” that envelopes the two freedom seekers and Garrett. Tubman is revealed as force of nature, embodied as the flow of the river and the wind.
Chiodo referenced Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman and Harriet, Moses of Her People. He shows us both the sleeping baby cradled in Tubman arms and the revolver at her waist. Bradford recounted that Tubman gave babies paregoric, a tincture of opium, so they would fall asleep and not awaken on the journey. Paregoric was a household remedy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; it was widely used to control diarrhea in adults and children, as an expectorant and cough medicine, and as an analgesic. With the drugged child, Chiodo wanted to convey, “the things that are difficult to tell that most people don’t want to tell.” Through the inclusion of the baby, Chiodo renders the seriousness of Tubman’s Underground Railroad trips; the threat to life if a child should awaken and cry out.
In a passage from both biographies, Bradford described that Tubman carried the revolver to encourage freedom seekers to keep moving forward:
“By night she traveled, many times on foot, over mountains, through forests, across rivers, mid perils by land, perils by water, perils from enemies, ‘perils among false brethren.’ Sometimes members of her party would become exhausted, foot-sore, and bleeding, and declare they could not go on, they must stay where they dropped down, and die; others would think a voluntary return to slavery better than being overtaken and taken back, and would insist upon returning; then there was no remedy but force.”
Time of day is suggested through Thomas Garrett. Dressed in a top hat, cape, and suit, Garrett holds a lantern in his right hand, pointing with his left hand the way from the shores of the Christina River to his home in Quaker Hill. His crouching, forward momentum suggests the urgency of the scene. A small barrel and crate rest near him, and behind Garrett are a pile of shoes. Garrett and William Still of Philadelphia organized much needed supplies for freedom seekers, who often lacked adequate clothing and footwear.
Chiodo created his monument to be seasonally specific, representing the harsh winter conditions with which many freedom seekers had to deal. Two freedom seekers, a man and woman, are below the figure of Harriet Tubman. The bald headed man wears no shirt and crouches down in the suggested snowy embankment of the river; his bronze foot rests inside an indentation that often fills with rainwater or snow depending on the weather conditions. With strained neck muscles and biceps flexed, the man reaches behind him to hold onto the arm of a young woman, who looks fatigued and stressed. Lying almost fully extended out, the young woman in a head wrap and dress is barefoot, the sole of her vulnerable foot exposed to the viewer. The edge of Tubman’s cloth covers the back of the woman, suggesting that although the woman may be in agony, Tubman will assuredly enable this young family to find freedom.
Kate Clifford Larson reminds of the extreme difficulties Tubman faced in her missions:
“Despite Tubman’s success, the enormous obstacles she surmounted in assisting runaways should not be diminished. There was the constant fear of relentless slave catchers, who were armed with guns, knives, and whips and hunted with vicious dogs that were trained to attack human beings. Natural barriers were plentiful as well. Many slaves running for freedom along the land route through eastern Maryland into Delaware and north into Pennsylvania or east and north into New Jersey lacked adequate clothing and shoes. Spiny sweet gum burrs, thorny thickets, the sharp needles of marsh grass, and icy paths in the winter all took their toll on the feet and limbs of struggling runaways.”
Chiodo has encapsulated nineteenth-century photographic representations and Bradford and Larson’s descriptions into his work. He has created an monument that reinforces the stoic and heroic nature of Tubman in her missions on the Underground Railroad.
“Unwavering Courage in the Pursuit of Freedom,” CODA: Collaboration of Design + Art, accessed August 7, 2018, https://www.codaworx.com/project/unwavering-courage-in-the-pursuit-of-freedom-mayor-s-cultural-affairs-office.
Sarah H. Bradford, Harriet, The Moses of Her People (New York: Geo. R. Lockwood & Son, 1886), 33, electronic edition, Documenting the American South, http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/harriet/harriet.html.
Amy Cherry, “Underground Railroad Heroes Remembered in City’s New Sculpture,” WDEL 101.7 FM, accessed September 28, 2016, https://www.wdel.com/news/video-underground-railroad-heroes-remembered-in-city-s-new-sculpture/article_5612b88b-2756-586d-9508-a15f710acdc4.html.
Sarah H. Bradford, Scenes from the Life of Harriet Tubman (Auburn, NY: W. J. Moses, 1869), 24-25, electronic edition, Documenting the American South, http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/bradford/bradford.html.
Kate Clifford Larson, Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero (New York: Ballantine, 2004), 103.