June 28, 2020, marks a special day for Cincinnati, as it would have been the 100th birthday of beloved politician and civil rights activist Marian Spencer, who died on July 9, 2019. To commemorate the occasion, the Women’s City Club of Greater Cincinnati organized an artistic tribute: a life-size statue of Spencer, designed by local sculptors Tom Tsuchiya and Gina Erardi.
The idea is credited to club member Alice Schneider, who initiated fund-raising efforts that collected enough donations to commission the project. “It’s special because Marian herself was a member of the Women’s Club before she passed away,” says Tsuchiya, who conducted extensive research to infuse the clay with Spencer’s personality, never having met her in person. He relied heavily on the biography Keep on Fighting, written by Spencer’s fellow activist and friend, Dot Christenson. He also spoke with Camille Haamid, Spencer’s niece and model for the sculpture. “It was important to listen to the people who knew her well,” Tsuchiya says.
One concept that became paramount in creating the piece was to reflect Spencer’s dedication to local youth. “I came up with the idea of representing her communicating with two children, a girl and a boy, because a lot of what she became famous for was desegregating public schools and Coney Island. The kids are good symbols of her legacy in [Cincinnati’s] public institutions.”
Tsuchiya and Erardi’s creation goes one step further in bringing Spencer to life by featuring an interactive element. The scene depicts Spencer greeting the children, holding the girl’s hands that are linked with the boy’s in turn. He reaches out to Spencer, an open gesture that forms an incomplete circle. Visitors will follow footprints etched into the base of the display, encouraging them to fill in the gap themselves.
“It symbolizes unity,” Tsuchiya says, “and at the same time it spreads her message of bringing about change through non-violent means. This sculpture represents that kind of peaceful work that followed political and legal avenues.”
The sculpture will be installed at the Women’s Committee Garden in Smale Riverfront Park later this summer. “It’s due south from the Underground Railroad Freedom Center and the suspension bridge, which were both important symbols in Marian’s life,” says Tsuchiya. “The space is cool because the statue will be right on the ground—it’s accessible to all people.”
A public unveiling was originally set for Spencer’s centennial birthday, but plans have changed amid lingering COVID-19 concerns. Tsuchiya says it’s likely that the ceremony will instead take place next spring, and could feature live music, speeches from donors, and other activities.