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Celebrating the unveiling of the Victoria Martin sculpture are (from left) MMC Trustee Brenda Speer, MMC President Dr. Mark La Branche, Pamela Sue Keller and Lucy Scott Fuqua Kuykendall.   MMC / Submitted

Martin Methodist College unveiled a bronze, sculpted bust of Victoria Martin to be displayed on campus in the new Victoria Martin Garden Nov. 10.

Funded as a memorial from the family of Mary Lucy Wilson Fuqua (MMC ’46), the Victoria Martin bust recognizes MMC’s 150-year history of providing college-level education for women.

On her deathbed in 1859, a young Victoria Martin asked her father, Thomas, to establish a college so that women like her could attend. Martin, the son of a Methodist Circuit Rider who became a wealthy, civic-minded businessman and community leader in Pulaski, once paying a Union general $3,000 to save the town from fire during the Civil War, at his death in 1870 bequeathed $30,000 in bonds to honor his daughter’s dying plea.

Although colleges had been founded for men in the early years of the colonization of our new country (e.g., Harvard College, 1636), mostly to prepare ministers, no college for women appeared until two centuries later. Georgia Wesleyan College was founded by Methodists in 1836; Greensborough Female College, founded also by Methodists, appeared in 1838. The first of the Seven Sister Schools, Mount Holyoke, alma mater of Emily Dickinson, was founded in 1841. The period during the Civil War did not show growth in new colleges for women, so in 1870, in Tennessee, there were not even 10 colleges for women throughout the whole state, with none in our area.

The Victoria Martin Garden features the bust and three benches situated in a hand-laid stone setting. Interestingly, fewer than 400 bronze statues of women can be found across the country, as of 2019, and of the 400, only about a third represent real women. The rest are fictional, like Mother Goose or Juliet with Romeo. As opposed to representations of men, this lack of authentic female representation has had negative effects on the American visual culture. For women, the question throughout American history has been this: Which women should be allowed to be placed on a pedestal?  So this bust, sculpted by renowned local artist Pamela Keller, serves as a necessary addition to public art and brings forth MMC’s strong artistic statement of honoring women’s presence in history.

The sesquicentennial spirit of MMC and the national interest in new bronze public art celebrating women have come together to make now the time when this work of art will be best received, according to Keller, whose sculptures grace the Huntsville Museum of Art, The University of the South and the Trail of Tears Historic Association, just to name a few.

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Victoria Martin’s sculptural image comes from only one reference photograph supplied by the College, a pale reproduction of a painted portrait of the young Victoria. She had a strong chin, dark eyes and extraordinarily tidy hair. Keller used these details and written historical sources to visualize her countenance. Further historical research into Victorian styles led to the details of the base, the back of her hair, the fabric and design of her dress, the style of lace for her collar, the button on her collar and her brooch.

In reflecting about her experience with the subject, as she does with all her pieces, Keller shared the following about this piece: “During the creation of Victoria’s likeness, I had to imagine many aspects... My technique is to use prayerful reflection to sense Victoria’s consent as I work toward a likeness. It was as if I could hear her requesting to look, ‘properly groomed, with a very neat appearance.’ She seemed to care most that her image was stately, tidy and respectable.”

Dr. Judy Cheatham, provost at MMC but also an expert on 19th century women’s education, commented, “The artist’s perception strikes me as perfect. If you look at pictures of 19th century ‘ladies,’ their hair is up, tidy, braided. Some 19th century women never cut their hair, citing Biblical passages that forbade such vanity, but they wore it up, not down in curls. In fact, I always tell students when I teach that period that loose flowing hair equated to loose morals, and I illustrate with the description of Hester Prynne, Hawthorne’s protagonist in “The Scarlet Letter.” Hester’s hair is kept hidden under her Puritan cap, but when she meets Arthur Dimmesdale in the forest, that hat comes off, her hair is unpinned and moral ‘turpitude’ ensues! A Victorian audience would have been scandalized by such a scene.”

 As Keller concluded, “Whether it was my imagination or divination, I felt Victoria’s contentment and approval as the sculpture developed.”

College President the Rev. Dr. Mark La Branche, as he began imagining the College’s sesquicentennial year, had decided that a sculpture of Victoria would be a wonderful addition to the College’s campus green.

“Celebrating 150 years, I felt we should honor our beginning that was first formed in the heart of this young lady, Victoria Martin,” La Branche said.

In the meantime, Mary Lucy Wilson Fuqua, a native of Pulaski who had begun her college career at Martin, graduated from George Peabody College, married Dr. William Fuqua and made her home in Columbia, had died. Her daughter Lucy Fuqua Kuykendall contacted longtime friend and classmate Dr. Cheatham.

“Oh my,” said Cheatham, “I had seen the sculpture in its early stages. It was beautiful — so serene, pious, lovely. When I heard from Lucy Scott about a gift to the college, I thought immediately about using Mrs. Fuqua’s gift toward this sculpture. I had known, admired and loved Mrs. Fuqua since I was a child. She was beautiful — also serene, pious, lovely, accomplished, with a voice like an angel. I found the 1946 college annual. Mary Lucy Wilson graces many of its pages, and her accolades fill seven lines: ‘With stars in her eyes, she walked into our lives. Although the responsibilities placed on her shoulders are many and heavy, she has handled each situation with ease... Every gesture reflects refinement, poise, and grace.’ I also knew that the Wilson, Scott, Fuqua, and Kuykendall families have long supported education for women. As Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sister Catherine said, ‘Educate a woman and educate a family.’ Some people have modified that slightly, ‘Educate a woman and educate a nation!’ Either way, what a blessing.”

“Giving to Martin Methodist felt right,” Kuykendall said. “That’s where we directed gifts to when my mother passed away, and this has worked out so beautifully. I’ve always known that Martin Methodist College was here, but what it really meant to my family... I really didn’t know; that reality is coming together for me now, and I’m just so thrilled beyond words. It’s a lovely situation. Being engaged with the arts is very special to my family, and I think Martin Methodist and Pamela Keller have done a beautiful job. Pamela has obviously felt Victoria Martin’s presence. I’m honored, and I feel connected in so many ways.”

Victoria Martin takes her place on a pedestal among our nation’s growing number of bronze sculptures of real women. Her gaze forever falls upon the lovely ground of Martin Methodist College, the campus she inspired. For years to come, students will look up to her as a founder who captures the spirit of the quest for higher education.

—MMC

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