Ed Hamilton: Spirit of Freedom
A lot goes into creating a memorial; as Ed Hamilton states, “I realize that I’m creating something that viewers may not have known about historically. It’s like all of a sudden I’ve become a historian.”
Ed Hamilton is an American sculptor who grew up in Louisville, KY, while born in Cincinnati, Ohio. Fascinated by three-dimensional art since childhood, he is a truly accomplished and esteemed artist everyone should strive to know. The Carnegie Center for Art and History is honored to have a maquette of Hamilton’s Spirit of Freedom (2020)–a preliminary model, 22 of 100, of the lifesize sculpture from 1998 at the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, DC.
Hamilton is incredibly thorough and diligent in his art, often starting at the library. The book United States Colored Troops, 1863-1867 by William A. Gladstone, inspired Hamitlon’s Spirit of Freedom. The book contained images of African American soldiers during the Civil War era, providing Hamilton with a view of the period even though he wanted to create unidentifiable people on the memorial to honor all the soldiers. Designing memorials requires more than just research on the subject matter; Hamilton also considered surrounding buildings, information on the local neighborhood, and any existing proposed plans he would need to be aware of–during his first presentation for the memorial, Hamilton references a proposal on U Street that stunned Committee members. His first design retains the same shapes as the model at the Carnegie; however, the concave portion had no subjects. The back originally represented the spiritual and ethereal, to which Bernadette, Hamilton’s wife, offered her “all-knowing report, ‘Yeah, right.’” Thanks to Bernadette’s input, Hamilton considered adding a family when remembering a memorial committee member mentioned the importance of the soldiers’ families. In Hamilton’s book, The Birth of an Artist: A Journey of Discovery (2006), he declares, “In August, the committee chose my design based on the fact that I had placed attention on the entire plaza, I was a team player, and I had included a family.” combing all the research and perspectives he actively worked towards in his preparation for the memorial.
The approval for the memorial was just the beginning. Creating “the boys,” as Hamilton endearingly refers to the work, was a process. He starts by crafting a cardboard frame to scale the figures’ backdrop, followed by several months of creating a metal frame from water pipes–replacing the cardboard–to then apply clay to shape the boys (several more months). The process also involves edits. He originally had four soldiers and two sailors, while the final design lost one of each. He did meticulous research to create historically accurate uniforms and construct a realness to the touch to the face, hands, and feet–as if walking out of the clay. He used Bernadette as a model to create the realness of the wife left behind in the back portion. As he was shaping the clay, the area above the soldiers felt too blank to Hamilton. Thinking about the subject, he asked himself, where do you turn in danger on the battlefield, which led to the face Hamilton named the “protector” and the spiritual nature of the work. His pastor also visited him during his labor on the memorial and referred him to Psalm 91:4, which reads, “He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.” This guidance brought together everything he was toiling on with symbolism. Saturday, July 18th, 1998, the memorial was revealed.
Both the model and lifesize memorial are a sculpture in the round with a design that encourages circling the work. The first image of the maquette shows three soldiers and a sailor defending Freedom–represented as a hovering spirit over their heads. As you walk around to the back of the sculpture, you see a family and two small children next to a figure leaving to join Union soldiers. The figure on the right reaches out to the soldier at the last moment before their departure. The DC memorial places the 9-foot tall Spirit of Freedom in the center of a granite-paved plaza encircled by a wall honoring the names of 209,145 United States Colored Troops who served in the Civil War. Their service helped to end the war and freed over four million enslaved people. The African American Civil War Memorial honors their service and sacrifice.
Spirit of Freedom brings to life art and history as well as identity. In several statements, Hamilton references a young black boy at the D.C. memorial who kept circling the work and finally says, “That looks like me.”
Please join us at Carnegie Center for Art and History to honor Hamilton’s art in From Audubon to Sisto: Highlights from the Permanent Collection.
- Hamilton, Ed. The Birth of an Artist: A Journey of Discovery. 2006. Louisville Ky: Chicago Spectrum Press. https://worldcat.org/en/title/65667747
- For a great collection of images of the D.C. Memorial: https://dcphotoguide.com/african-american-civil-war-memorial/
You can reference the same book as Ed Hamilton for his Spirit of Freedom at New Albany-Floyd County Public Library Meeting Room–United States Colored Troops, 1863-1867 by Gladstone, William A. Click the link below:
By: Sheridan Bishoff