Darrel Ellis/ Courtesy photo
Detroit artist Austen Brantley.
Detroit’s own Tuskegee Airman Alexander Jefferson is being honored with a statue of his likeness in Rouge Park.
After a month-long search for an artist worthy of the task, the Detroit office of Arts, Culture, and Entrepreneurship chose local sculptor Austen Brantley to build the monument. It’s a full circle moment — a Black Detroiter being called on to salute another Black Detroiter with a public work of art.
As a Tuskegee Airman, Jefferson fought the battle against racism alongside his duties as a WWII pilot. Jefferson flew in the Red Tail Squadron, which escorted bombers into missions, protecting them against Nazi Luftwaffe fighters. Reportedly, the Red Tails lost so few planes that bombers requested them for flying runs.
The segregated and primarily Black group of airmen is one of the most highly respected fighter groups of WWII.
Jefferson passed away on June 22, 2022
at the age of 100.
“Whenever I make public work, it’s always gonna have something to do with Black history,” Brantley tells Metro Times
. “I always think about merging the past and the future and statues like this are for our ancestors to talk to their descendants. I wanna make sure I honor that and I also get to say something new and fresh. I’m really excited about it.”
The statue, made possible by Cynthia and Edsel B. Ford II on behalf of the Henry Ford II Fund, will anchor the Jefferson Plaza at Rouge Park, which has been dedicated to the war hero. Jefferson flew model airplanes there as a young boy.
“Detroit is proud to honor one of our great heroes and to give an opportunity to a Detroit artist to create a permanent tribute to his service,” Detroit ACE director Rochelle Riley said in a statement.
Brantley was chosen out of a long list of national applicants, and what’s even more impressive is that the 26-year-old artist is self-taught in his craft. His natural talent was undiscovered until his junior year at Berkley High School, where a ceramic teacher saw his potential and pleaded with him to take art seriously.
Now Brantley is a nationally recognized artist with several publicly displayed pieces including statues of Negro Leagues baseball player Ernest Burke in Havre De Grace, Maryland; civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo in Detroit; and another piece of a young Black boy holding a flower at the East Canfield Pavilion.
US Embassy London / Wikimedia Commons
Tuskegee Airmen Alexander Jefferson.
For the Alexander Jefferson sculpture, Brantley wants to show Jefferson both as a young pilot and as the educator he became when he returned from WWII in 1947.
“People want to see him for what he did when he was younger, but he also did a lot for the youth,” Brantley says. “He would teach children how to fix airplanes, and I think that’s very special and would be very cool in a statue. I’m really liking the concept of him in the clouds too because he’s a pilot and I like the texture of clouds.”
Jefferson received a teaching certificate from Wayne State University after the war and began teaching elementary school science in Detroit Public Schools. He would later receive his master’s degree in education and become an assistant principal.
Brantley says he has a few sketches of the piece and is still working out the final concept as he studies documentaries and interviews with Jefferson to help him capture his personality and “the way his face moves.”
As with most of his work, Brantley plans to incorporate a subtle nod to African culture.
“Sometimes for public art, people want the safe thing and I always like to push boundaries and challenge viewers,” he says. “There are some things I’m doing now with my work where I’m attempting to show some subtleness of African textures. I want people to feel like somebody who cares about the significance of this history did this piece.”
He adds, “I wanna make sure people understood this statue is a work of art. It’s not just a statue. I’m an artist and in the end, I’m gonna say what I wanna say."
Brantley tells us he expects the commemorative statue to be complete by the spring 2023.
He’s also working on two other public pieces — a sculpture of two Black students with cowrie shells in their eyes for his alma mater Berkley High School, and another of the first Black family that settled in Royal Oak.
“Cowrie shells represent wealth,” he says about the Berkley High School project. “I didn’t ask for permission to do it like that. I just wanted to show that people walk with an unknowing of their history, but it’s still in them. It’s this untapped treasure within all of us.”
The artist says his work, in particular pieces that get to honor Black history, give him purpose.
“It’s all I could ever ask for, to do something with the gifts I’ve been given,” he says.
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