Client: UrbanArt, City of Memphis
Location: Memphis, TN, United States
Completion date: 2006
Artwork budget: $250,000
David Alan Clark Sculpture
Russ Adsit, FASLA
Russell Adsit Landscape Architecture
National Ornamental Metal Museum
Ed Frank, historian
University of Memphis
Family of Tom Lee
1 1/4-life size bronze monument, 20’ wide x 12’ tall x 5’ deep, set on granite bases. The plaza is 32' in diameter, ringed with spotlights and etched with river currents.
Tom Lee's story of heroism was becoming lost - it needed a narrative piece to tell it. There was an old obelisk - with a plaque lauding Lee as a 'worthy negro' but nothing that drew people to the river front or encouraged them to connect with his story. The spotlit plaza draws visitors on warm summer nights, and the sculpture during the day also attracts people to come and sit and watch the river move as a backdrop to the dramatic artwork.
This project was spearheaded by Lee's great-niece, Charmeal. She worked with me to get the correct likeness. Lee was a riverman who, despite the fact that he could not swim, rescued 32 people from the Mississippi River in 1925. The monument shows Lee leaning from his boat to rescue a man in the water, viewers' perspective is that of the victims' the waterline of the boat is at eye-level. Landscape architect Russ Adsit collaborated with the design of the plaza - the set-in bench, and the means of etching river currents. Also the spotlights - one for each rescued person - were spec'ed to not be too hot for bare feet to step on.
Memphis is an amazing city that has had mixed luck with its reputation for civil rights. This sculpture, of a poor black man saving rich white people - underscores the city's real spirit of reaching across racial barriers in recognition of our shared humanity. The local chapter of Amnesty International agreed and used the sculpture as the backdrop for their regional human rights awards.