Our History in Bronze

 

Written by Amy Dee Stephens in the September 2018 Issue

Our History in Bronze

 

Our History in Bronze

It’s not surprising that Mary Lou Gresham talks about her sculptures as if they are living. For each of her historical figures, she studies photographs and histories until she feels that she knows each individual personally. Then, her fingers capture their essence.  

“See Ida Freeman’s delight at seeing the children getting into their books?” Gresham asked, pointing fondly at her new statue of school teacher, Ida Freeman. “She’s watching their imaginations grow, and that’s rewarding to her.” 

The Ida Freeman sculpture, “Lighting the Path,” is Edmond’s newest piece of public art and Gresham’s fourth commission for the city. Ida Freeman is now on the campus of the University of Central Oklahoma. At the dedication ceremony on July 27th, president of the Edmond Parks Foundation, Curt Munson, declared its location at the Old North building as a fitting site because of Ida Freeman’s impact as an educator. Ida not only attended teacher training at Old North in the early 1900s, she served as teacher and principal in Edmond for 38 years.

Ida Freeman was a strict disciplinarian, but also incredibly influential to children. “If Ida was here today, she would look at us and say, ‘This is nonsense! I was just doing my job,”’ Munson said. “Although her career easily merits such a construct, she is also a representative of all educators.” 

The 600-pound sculpture is displayed on a concrete bench that Gresham designed so that people could sit with Ida.  “I wanted to ask Miss Ida how she’d do this. I hate to tell her anything,” said Gresham. 

Gresham seems to specialize in smiles that are just right. Her first public sculpture, “The Reader,” has been loved by Edmond citizens since 1995. Thousands of people have gazed into the sweet face of the old man reading a newspaper at the entrance to the Edmond public library. The face is that of her own grandfather.

“Grandfather had the cutest sense of humor, and he loved to tell jokes. He was such a gentleman. He never went out without his coat and tie. He loved my nanny so much. You could see the love in his eyes.” 

Many children talk to “The Reader” like he’s a real person, just as Gresham does. “It always surprises me that people love  him as much as I do.” 

Edmond-based Gresham has spent many years as an artist, but she admits that it is risky business to create art on the chance someone will love and buy it—so she prefers commission work. She didn’t expect to be selected for her second sculpture, Kentucky Daisy.

“During the Land Run, Kentucky Daisy leaped off a moving train to claim land in Edmond,” Gresham said. “The other three artists who bid to design her were big names. I was David and they were Goliaths! But I was the only one that designed her leaping. To me, it was that leap that made her famous. She’s poised in a moment—a moment between being a nobody and being Daisy the legend. That’s why I named it “Leaping into History.”

The third sculpture Gresham completed for the city was Russell Dougherty, the first Edmond man to die during World War II. Gresham knew little about soldiers, but she connected with an expert. “He said, ‘I like what you’re doing. It’s important. Would it help if I brought a completely dressed mannequin to your art studio?’ So he did, and I’m pleased to say that Russell Dougherty is completely accurate, down to the connectors on his parachute harness. It’s like God took my hand and lead me through that sculpture.” 

“In the end, I know that art isn’t the most important thing out there. You don’t eat it. You don’t wear it. It doesn’t shelter you, so as far as basic survival, it’s not going to rate up there, but I’m so gratified when my art means something to people. I’m proud that of the 200 sculptures in Edmond, four of them are mine.”

Munson put it this way, “Without Mary Lou Gresham’s work, our city would be less beautiful.”

For more information, visit www.marylougresham.com

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