Sunday, June 26, 2011

We met Auguste Bartholdi

I'm not joking. We actually met the designer of the Statue of Liberty. Bartholdi was a French sculptor and friend of De LaBoulaye (the Frenchman who conceived of the idea of the monument showing the love of liberty shared by France and America.) Bartholdi created the Statue of Liberty and selected its site. I found a decent website that reads quickly on his story and some other important folks that are memorialized at the State park here.

The gist of the story is that the statue was to be a gift to America to celebrate its centennial, but it took a few more years to complete the project. Honestly, the link given above is a great summary with pretty pictures. Just the kind of thing I would have read on the ferry from Liberty State Park in New Jersey.

Bartholdi was talking to some other people in the picnic area when we found a nice shady table. I overheard him say, "She is my daughter," while he was gesturing to the monument. One look at his clothes and you could figure it out. I waved him over after he finished his conversation at the other table. The truth is that the people at the other table didn't know how to engage with him so they kind of ignored him, hoping he would go away. I know character actors at historic parks get that a lot. Unless there are children around. Then the suspended moment of disbelief becomes something really fun.

He carried a design and building specs of the statue on old parchment like paper. His accent was sort of between French and Italian; but that was to signify his place of birth: Alsace, southern France, near the Italian alps. We learned this through our conversation. He didn't just recite a pre-made speech, he asked where we were from and conversation went on a natural path.

We talked about the various places we lived, then we talked about where our immigrating ancestors came from. This part was my attempt at engaging the kids in the conversation. Which they did poke in a few questions from time to time.

This actor often mentioned that he thought he was living in a dream. He was representing the 57 year old Bartholdi, as if he had gone through a time capsule machine and landed on the island today; a little confused, but still very proud of his work. This actor researched his character thoroughly. The conversation was so natural, and everything he said taught me more about the designer and the politics behind the monument than I would have ever been interested in knowing before.

My son asked him, "Are you a ghost?"

"I don't believe in such things."

"Are you like Santa Claus?"

"Absolutely not. Say, What are those flying machines up there?" (diverting so as to not approach potential delicate subject, yet making son realize the relevance of the time Bartholdi lived.)

This actor really humanized history for me and my kids. I'm not sure if the kids will remember much of what we talked about. But I hope they remember Bartholdi was a real person who dedicated his life to a monument that now symbolizes the best of American ideals.

This is where the best intersections of my life and work happen. This improv actor really engaged me in learning and helped me enjoy the details through simple and friendly conversation. I want to see character actors in schools doing this kind of engagement so that history lessons are not just recited facts, but an awareness of the humans who made history; and the humans that make it relevant.

The sign near the gift shop says that Bartholdi was portrayed by Glenn Stoops. But the one we met was different, so I'm sorry to say I can't credit the correct actor. I'm sad that I can't find his website to send him a link to this blog post as my thank you. Instead, I'll try to call the park visitor center to get his name and see if I can at least properly credit him. It was a really neat experience.

#10 of 90in90 #LUBLogTribe.

We came back home, and topped of the day with an excellent dinner at our friends Jeremy and Amy's house. But more on that relationship in another post - because they represent both encouragement and primary audience for this blog.


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  2. The actor: Adam Sullivan. Personally, I think he's genius. Possibly that is because he is my brother!

  3. Two years later, the kids have a 5th grade assignment to write an essay on the Statue of Liberty. They vaguely remembered this moment; only after we reminded them. Since the blog post went up, someone saw it and knew the actor, Adam Sullivan. We've since connected on Facebook. I posted this update to the story and the link to this post on my wall. Adam responded:

    "Adam Sullivan My partner still works there, Glenn Stoops. Our employer is a NPS contractor, Evelyn Hill Inc. The company has been the concessioner on Liberty Island since 1931, I believe, making them the first and only such purveyor of food and souvenirs on the site. They hired Glenn in 2005, and I joined in 2006. I left the job two years ago, and I miss it a bit. Mostly I miss meeting people like Silagh and her family, who have an interest in the Statue as more than just an item on a New York City tourism agenda. I met such people from all around the world while working there, people who saw the Statue as a source of inspiration, or of nostalgia, or wonder. I met a woman from Avignon who had a massive tattoo of the Statue on her forearm. I met a young Afghani, an orphan all his life, who had been working for the U.N since he was 10 years old. I met Bartholdi's biographer. I met a family from Panama on the coldest day of the year -- they could not have been more intelligent, nor more excited to be there in spite of the weather.

    Glenn and Evelyn Hill have had a rough go of it this past year: the statue was closed for 9 months after Sandy, then closed again when the government was shut down. All seems well now, though. Let's hope she continues to receive visitors, without interruption, for another century at least."

    Awesome how making an effort to share a story can make a difference. It's the little things; but they warm my heart because I know how much it means to artists to know they've made an impact. I really, really know.