The Monument Man
Zenos Frudakis has spent the last fifty years sculpting life out of bronze, aiming to capture the likeness and spirit of his subjects and to shine a light on those who have helped foster change in the world.
Zenos Frudakis is a sculptor best known for his figurative monuments of historic personas. His statues and monumental work are displayed at sites around the world, including Arlington National Cemetery and England’s Imperial War Museum.
Born in San Francisco, Frudakis was raised in the Midwest before moving to Philadelphia to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the University of Pennsylvania. After establishing his reputation with depictions of local figures such as Wilson Goode, Philadelphia’s first African American mayor, the sculptor received commissions from numerous cities and sites—for golfer Arnold Palmer, lawyer Clarence Darrow, singer Nina Simone, and other prominent figures. Some sculptures have courted controversy: a bust of Martin Luther King, Jr., was installed at the U.S. Embassy in apartheid-era South Africa; a statue of divisive mayor Frank Rizzo was removed from Philadelphia following protests in 2020. His best-regarded work, the large bronze Freedom monument, which depicts figures breaking in various states of separation from a wall, is frequently included on lists of the world’s greatest sculptures.
Welcome to Articulate, the show that examines our creativity, as the very essence of our humanity. I’m Jim Cotter and on this episode: “The Monument Man.” Zenos Frudakis has spent the last 50 years sculpting life out of bronze, aiming to best capture the likenesses and spirits of his subjects and to shine a light on those who have helped foster change in the world.
Zenos Frudakis: Even though you are seeing what’s really there. What you’re creating is kind of an intersection between you and the world around you. Like if I sculpted you, it wouldn’t be just you, it’s part of me too. It’s almost like, you know, a child you’re having with someone else. You’re bringing yourself and the other person and there’s that overlap. And the overlap is the sculpture between the two.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
In early June of 2020, the city of Philadelphia removed a controversial statue of its former mayor and police commissioner Frank Rizzo. Days earlier, a group demonstrating against police brutality had set fire to the statue. Rizzo was a vocal opponent of desegregation and minority rights. And under his leadership in the late 1960s and 70s, the police department engaged in widespread and brazen abuses of power as documented by Bill Marimow and Jonathan Newman in a Pulitzer-prize-winning Philadelphia Inquirer series. Ironically, the man who had created the statue on a private commission, Zenos Frudakis, has devoted much of his own life working to overthrow the same injustices Rizzo so fervently propagated. Over almost five decades, he has created dozens of monuments, lifelike statues, and abstract sculptures, including depictions of trailblazing leaders like musician Nina Simone, and martyrs to changes such as Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln.
His works may be silent, but they speak loudly for change.
Frudakis: Everything that I do is permeated by this sense of wanting to do, leave the world a better place. I want to, I see the world in a, I hope a compassionate way. That’s important to me in all my work to have that element of humanity. It’s not just about length and width and depth. It’s about that other dimension of time.
Frudakis is one of the most accomplished sculptures of our time. At Japan’s third Rodin Grand Prize International Invitational Exhibition, he was named “The American Rodin,” a fitting title since Frudakis has always revered that great 19th century french sculptor whose creations were imbued with realistic human character and physicality, and symbols of the artist’s own philosophy.
Rodin reinvented the notion of the ‘ancient sculpture’. Appealing to the uncanny, yet making his works resemble their human subjects so closely while appearing weightless, fluid and unencumbered by the materials they were made of.
Frudakis: There were other sculptors at his time who were—who could make a human figure that looked like it would walk, you know, it had tremendous facility. But what he did was something more than just the object itself.
Rodin’s greatest work might be “The Gates of Hell,” a 20-foot by 14-foot sculpted doorway. The sculptor was originally commissioned to create an inviting entrance to a soon to be built art museum in the heart of Paris. Often driven by metaphor. Rodin created 180 figures inspired by Dante’s Inferno, a 14th-century epic poem following a man’s journey through the seven stages of hell.
Rodin’s “Gates of Hell” was and is revered the world over. And some of his most recognizable works come from the margins of this piece. Like T, a man simply sitting in contemplation.
Frudakis: And “The Thinker” is really him. He’s sitting at the top of his “Gates of Hell,” thinking about his creation below him and all around him, that he’s has his hands in and he’s forming. It was almost like he had a garden and it was a garden of ideas. And he was growing his ideas in the gates of Hell. Well Rodin, I think impressed me because he was philosophical. You know, you can make a figure, like I can sculpt a human figure and it is a figure. But you can also make a figure as he did, that points beyond itself. Like “The Thinker” isn’t just a guy sitting there, it’s this idea embodied and it’s an embodiment of someone who’s thinking, it’s something beyond just the figure itself.
Frudakis: He put in seeds of ideas. And then they grew over time because he worked on it from when he was 40 years old, in 1880 until he died in 1917. So he was always in process. And some of these, you see them in various stages of development. You saw the fragment could represent the whole. So that, when it’s all put together, it’s something different.
Frudakis: Rodin had friends and people around them, literary people, and philosophers and people, they talk. And he had that in his work, “The Thinker” is the best example it’s become a symbol for thinking. So when I wanted to do a piece like Rodin, I wanted to come up with something philosophical because philosophy is very important to me and I thought, “what’s a great idea to work on?” And freedom was the idea that I wanted to tackle.
That piece lives just a few blocks from Philadelphia’s Rodin museum. It depicts a figure developing and slowly becoming free. It’s repeatedly been named one of the world’s greatest pieces of contemporary public art.
Frudakis: I knew almost everybody wants freedom. And if I could get to the deepest part of me that wants freedom and I could share with other people it would, I could find something that we all have in common a universal primordial sense of wanting to escape from something. It’s the self-development that gets you free. And so the first figure is very broad and it doesn’t have a lot of development, literally. And you can see the figure develops more and more focus, even so that the last figure that’s coming out of the wall is almost a fully developed figure, but it’s not totally developed because we’re all still developing. We’re all in process till we die. So it only has one nipple instead of two, part of the back isn’t finished. It’s still rough. For me as a sculptor, I also as a, you know, I wanted to show the process of sculpting. When I do a piece like the “Freedom” sculpture, that’s a summation of who I am up to that point. To some degree there’s a lot, for that piece for example, my father is in it, my mother is in it, and it’s a piece that’s autobiographical.
Frudakis: This is a cat I had for 20 years. This is a cast of my fingers. And here’s a little female figure with a grave. You could do some things in art that you can’t do in real life. This is my mother kind of unfinished. This is my father over here. And he was kind of a person who was bipolar and I kind of wanted to show him with a fracture and I took a wax of his head and I broke it. This is an actual cast of my hand holding a sculpture tool. This became for me a kind of fertile garden where I could just try pieces here and try them there and see what felt right.
Zenos Frudakis grew up in the Midwest. His father emigrated from Greece in the early 1900s to escape a bloody conflict between Christians and Muslims on the island of Crete. He worked in coal mines and suffered severe facial damage in an explosion. He was 60, 30 years older than his wife, Kassiani, when Frudakis was born. It was a tense paternal relationship. Frudakis says his father once chased him out of the house at gunpoint. Another time, he says, he dangled him over a bridge railing to win an argument with his wife.
Frudakis: He didn’t talk to me. He didn’t answer questions. So I had to figure out, “What am I doing here?” You know, I’m thrusted to the world. I didn’t have any answers. I didn’t, they all, they spoke Greek at home as their first language. My first language was almost nonverbal, I was drawing. I had a babysitter I remember who drew a face and she had two noses on it. And I looked at the person, people around me, I’m thinking, I’m a little kid. I was almost an infant. I’m thinking, “no, they don’t look like they have two noses.” And I didn’t know the words but I drew a face to show her because I wanted to check it. And I drew one nose and then she marveled at it. My mother loved everything I did. My mother made bread and I would take the dough as a little boy and under the table and make little figures. And she would put them in the oven and cook them for me and I was sculpting. She thought everything I did was great. And my father, he didn’t say it. I think it was almost as if he thought he would spoil me. I’d have to work hard. But other people told me, especially years later that he would go to the Greek coffee house and he would show all the men my drawings. I would find drawings missing from a booklet that— I used to draw every day for a couple hours to practice as a child. He would take my drawings and I find them sometimes in his pocket, in his coat. And take them and show them to other people. But he couldn’t tell me that.
Even though his father was low on support and encouragement, Frudakis continued to explore and hone his skills by looking to those who had come before him. Finding motivation in the work of other artists such as Michelangelo. While a student at the University of Pennsylvania, he studied anatomy by examining cadavers. And this understanding of the details of the body, has been a key component of his work. But even with this attention to physical form, his intention, he says, is never to create some sort of glorified mannequin.
Frudakis: Okay I can show off how well I can do a head or figure how well I know anatomy. The science part is interesting to me. And that part is stimulating. I mean, I look for a balance and having that, the rational and for me that’s the science part of doing the figure that I know the anatomy and that I research Ben Franklin. I listen to books about him while I’m working and that kind of thing. Then there’s the, the emotional, the irrational, the part that’s more intuitive and creative. And that part has to be there too. You have to have a balance of both. If you get too much form, too much of the rational, a piece can get static. It can be a little cold and distant. You have to have heart. And then that’s the other part it’s the emotion if it’s too much of the emotional it’s like art therapy. It’s not enough, it has to also reach an audience. If it’s too much of the emotional, there’s a lack of that order that we find satisfying because we don’t wanna be in a life with disorder.
Sometimes for Frudakis, that order comes out of tension. As in his sculpture of the seminal American musician and civil rights activist, Nina Simone. The piece was to be installed in her hometown, Tryon, North Carolina. But it was at point of contention with the townspeople, as Nina Simone had been outspoken about how the Jim Crow laws affected her growing up in that racially segregated town. As word spread of the Simone sculpture, many people there saw it as a slight to the town’s history, a critique of its past.
Frudakis: They resented her because they felt that she had bad mouthed the town. And she had said some things about the town because there was a lot of racism, that maybe they didn’t experience growing up but she experienced it. And she experienced it very young. I mean very young when she played the piano at a public gathering and her parents sat in the front row to hear her, and they were told to go sit in the back. And she is a little girl got up and said, “I’m not playing if they don’t sit in the front.” There was about a third of the town. I was told the third might not want it, a third would probably be indifferent, and a third wanted it. So I didn’t want it removed. There were people while I was installing it there were people who drove by in their pickup trucks and yelled out the window.
Yet Frudakis was undaunted in his commitment to honor Simone for all she had achieved as a musician and for her role in the civil rights movement. She was mentored by Langston Hughes and James Baldwin and when, on meeting Martin Luther King she declared “I’m not nonviolent!” he replied “Not to worry, sister.” Her songs would become a soundtrack for that dark period. “Old Jim Crow,” “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” “Backlash Blues” with lyrics by Langston Hughes. All of these songs became rallying cries for change. But keeping her sculpture in Tryon would require a different kind of creativity from its maker.
Frudakis: I knew that she had been cremated and I was working with her daughter and I asked her daughter who is also a singer, “Do you have any more of her ashes?” And she said she did after she had spread some she still had some. I wanna create a bronze heart. I’m gonna do it in clay and then cast it in bronze. I’d like to pour her ashes into the heart and then weld them into her chest, in the bronze. I thought also if I make it her grave in a sense that it would be very difficult to move her grave. There was a point where someone from newspapers there called and said, “you know, they’re talking about moving it, what do you think?” And I said, “well, they’re gonna be moving her grave. Her ashes are in the sculpture.” And then it became a place for people to go to almost like visiting a grave. I just thought it was more meaningful that way and to have her, in a way it brought her home. I wanted to create a sculpture for it to be a healing piece. I think it to a larger degree has become that. And I think even many of the people who weren’t sure they wanted it, have, from what I’ve heard, have gotten used to it. And they’re glad to have it now.
And so, instead of representing the town’s ugly past, Frudakis’ sculpture of Nina Simone, would become something to the town’s younger citizens, and her fans could rally around.
Years later in 2017, Frudakis found himself once again caught between the town’s intentions and his belief that sculpture could say something profound. Outside the county courthouse in Dayton, Tennessee stood a sculpture of William Jennings Bryan, the successful prosecutor in the notorious Scopes-Monkey Trial, a 1925 case that found a high school teacher guilty of breaking state law by teaching evolution.
The existence of his statue was a point of tension, but instead of wanting it removed, Frudakis believed that he could help tell the full story by creating a statue of Clarence Darrow, the lawyer who had defended the teacher’s right to explain evolution.
Frudakis: It was a public space really religion and politics shouldn’t be mixed like that. And that bothered me and somebody had brought it to my attention that the statue was there. And I thought, “it’s going to be hard to remove it.” I thought it would be more meaningful, if I could add a sculpture of Clarence Darrow there And that way would redefine the sculpture as a historical piece rather than a religious expression. Before my sculpture was there, I was sitting in my car in the parking lot at the courthouse. And I saw school children come with their teacher and she showed them the William Jennings Bryan sculpture and then they started to leave. And I jumped out of the car and I ran across the field and I said, “wait, wait, wait, there’s more to the other half of this story. You haven’t heard about Clarence Darrow.” Cause there was nothing there. And she said, “well tell us about it.” And so I told the kids about it. And after they left and they thanked me I thought, “I can’t sit in the car, in the parking lot for the rest of my life and jump out every time someone comes, you know the classroom and educate them. But if I put up a sculpture of Clarence Darrow, it’ll be there, they’ll have to address it, it’ll be historical.” And the town was pretty good about putting it in. There was a little, there were some elements, there were some people that threatened my life.
AJC: Right, well, there was that. I mean the town by and large, but there was somebody who actually said she was going to shoot you.
Frudakis: Yeah she said she had a surprise for me, and she was on the cover of the Wall Street Journal with her shotgun. And she was a minister, so I guess she wasn’t gonna throw the book at me, but she was going— she said she had a surprise for me. That concerned me a little, because whether she was gonna do that or not, somebody else who was even less rational may have shown up with a deer rifle and a scope on it. So someone, a friend of mine hired a bodyguard, an armed bodyguard for the unveiling. And we told people we’re putting it in at nine o’clock and my foundry people got in at seven and put it in, ’cause they didn’t wanna be shot at either.
The Darrow sculpture was about more than history. Frudakis also felt it was a way to fight against what he saw as a developing suspicion of science. Three years earlier, another of his sculptures, “Knowledge is Power,” showed two unnamed educators holding a book, from which Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin emerged. For Frudakis who subscribes to no religious doctrine, that pursuit is at the heart of the unifying vision of humanity that drives much of his work. He believes that sculptures can encapsulate the complexities and contradictions that make people who they are. They can be more than a snapshot of a pose. At their best, they’re records of a lifetime and of the relationships between people and the world. Frudakis learnt this lesson early with one of his first sculptures, a rendering of his father.
Frudakis: I was very conscious that, I wanted to experience him, I wanted to really see him. And when you’re sculpting somebody, you see things you don’t notice in real life. I really saw his glass eye from the mining accident he was in when he was posing. I saw the scars on his face. I saw the powder, the dark marks in his face that got into his skin that he carried from when he was 19 and now he was 80-something when he posed for me. Having him pose it really is like, you’re going through kind of a landscape and you’re learning it by walking through it. And that’s what I did by having him pose. I really wanted to remember him cause I knew I wouldn’t have him that long. He was pretty old at that point. I was just learning sculpture cause it was my first piece, but I didn’t wanna wait until I mastered it before I did him because he wasn’t going to be there. And I wanted to do it while he was still alive.
When his father died, Frudakis sought out a way to reconcile the loss of the man with whom he had had such a fraught relationship.
Frudakis: I put my grief into the sculpture and I also sculpted a figure that I call “Grief or Weeping Willow.” It’s a bent over female figure. I wanted to shape that grief into something that was acceptable. Maybe again from that culture, I wasn’t permitted to cry and be that upset. So I wanted to give it form. And this was a way to organize and order my grief and to make it something more universal and beautiful. I think I was putting myself into the sculpture, I was putting my grief for him, I was putting my feelings, but in a way that I wanted other people to feel something too. See, I don’t wanna be alone in my grief.
For Zenos Frudakis, bronze and clay are a language for thinking about the world. And just as a thought or a feeling can change with time, Frudakis knows a sculpture can too. He’s even considered redoing “Freedom,” his most well-known piece, updated and informed by the time that’s passed since he made it 20 years ago.
Frudakis: I’m different and I think that, the way I created the piece, the four figures are something that as you drive by, you can see at a glance, that there’s a struggle to break free. Then there’s a lot of detail in there. I would keep that part, the struggle to break free. Because you need to show freedom you have to show trapped figures, you have to show the transition and show struggle. And I think that if I did it again, it would be nice to make a piece and I could do this with Freedom in different ways. I could do for example, a piece that had more to do with political freedom or the American revolution and history and that kind of thing, and put, make it more historical or and that would be like, you wouldn’t see that at first you’d have to get up close to see those details. Or it could be, maybe it has to do with people who’ve been jailed because of their conscience like Socrates and Mandela and others. But freedom is something people want all over the world. I mean, I get a lot of the emails, I get it from the Middle East and from Iran in particular, from young people. And I think it’s because maybe they don’t wanna stand up and say, “we want freedom,” but they can say, “we love the sculpture, ‘Freedom.’”
Through over 100 statues and sculptures in every corner of the world, Zenos Frudakis has tried to understand and convey the joys and challenges of living and in doing so has elevated the ideas and feelings that we all share.
Frudakis: Even though you are seeing what’s really there, what you’re creating is kind of an intersection between you and the world around you. Like if I sculpted you, it wouldn’t be just you. And it’s part of me too. It’s almost like, you know, a child you’re having with someone else. You’re bringing yourself and the other person and there’s that overlap. And the overlap is the sculpture between the two.