Steven Whyte, a Carmel, California-based sculptor, is recreating an iconic image of Joseph Vaughn, Furman University’s first African American undergraduate student, as a bronze statue that will forever commemorate Vaughn’s walk up the steps to James B. Duke Library, wearing a cardigan and with books tucked under his arm.
The statue, based on a photo taken during Vaughn’s first semester on Furman’s campus in the winter of 1965, will be adjacent to a brick and grassy area interspersed with short walls to provide a place of reflection and celebration.
The statue is among a set of recommendations from Furman’s Task Force on Slavery and Justice, formed in the spring of 2017 to acknowledge Furman’s ties to slavery and to honor and recognize on campus important figures in the university’s diverse history.
Whyte, whose works include international social justice figures, was chosen in February by a university working group and approved by the Board of Trustees.
“The working group agreed that Steven Whyte’s work was simply the best,” says Bob Chance, a member of the group and a professor of art at Furman. The group, he says, “wanted a straightforward image and that is why we chose Whyte. We considered about 10 other sculptors, including several minority artists, but Whyte’s portrait work was convincing visually, sensitive and empathetic without appearing stiff or abstracted.”
In his proposal for the Furman commission, Whyte wrote that he had become frustrated by the lack of diversity in subjects chosen for public works of art. “For more than a decade, I have been purposely seeking out projects focused on diversity and social justice,” he wrote. “In addition to my belief that our society, as a whole, benefits when we open ourselves up to new experiences and a diversity of narratives, I find subjects like Mr. Vaughn artistically challenging.”
He proposed “using posture and expression” to create “a monument that celebrates (Vaughn’s) courage, determination and vulnerability represented in Mr. Vaughn’s deceptively simple act of walking into a classroom.”
Among other works, Whyte created the Comfort Women Memorial statue in San Francisco, installed in 2017 and dedicated to young Asian women and girls who were sexually enslaved by Japanese forces during World War II. He has also created busts of Abraham Lincoln, Congressman John Conyers Jr. and two busts of Martin Luther King Jr. His work for other universities includes a life-sized African elephant for Tufts University and several pieces for Texas A&M, including a 40-foot long statue of 12 students, 1.6-times life size, with arms linked singing Texas A&M’s fight song.
Vaughn, who became a teacher and a leader in South Carolina public education, died in 1991. He was a visionary, Chance says, and placing a memorial to him in a prominent place on campus “creates respect, questions, conversation and a sense of what has gone before and what is happening now and may occur in the future.”
“Whether he chose it or not, he became emblematic of what we now see as an essential and integrated knowledge community; a blend of culture, race, ethnicity and diversity that contributes to our understanding of our education and its place in the world today,” Chance says. “He was a person to look up to now in our current racial tumult. He was willing to risk it and created a path forward for all of our students to come.”
Courtney Tollison ’99, Distinguished University Historian and Scholar, says “Steven Whyte is a talented artist who understands the meaning behind why we memorialize.”
Tollison says a quote from Furman alumnus J. Monroe Johnson often comes my mind: “Civilizations of people can be accurately judged by their monuments.”
“Joseph Vaughn’s matriculation into Furman and our efforts to memorialize him at the heart of campus, represent critical moments in Furman’s work toward becoming a more enlightened, inclusive community for all,” Tollison says. “The addition of a statue honoring Vaughn on our campus will not only reveal who we are and what we value, but it will also be a significant work from an artistic standpoint.”
Whyte’s work on the Vaughn statue is well under way. After creating the figure in clay he’ll create molds, which are sent to a foundry in Berkeley, California, where the sculpture will be cast in about eight pieces. The bronze parts will be welded together and finishing touches will be made before it’s shipped to Furman for installation.
The project is scheduled to be complete in time for the second-annual Joseph Vaughn Day, Jan. 29, 2021.