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Oct. 14—Over the past two years, sculptor Sarah Hempel Irani and a team spearheaded by the Frederick Art Club has worked tirelessly to bring a bronze statue of renowned fashion designer Claire McCardell to Frederick. It will be unveiled to the public on Oct. 17 at its permanent location along Carroll Creek Linear Park.
But its installation is bigger than Sarah, bigger than Claire, and bigger than Frederick.
As the statue commemorates a historical figure, it also makes history itself, a tangible statement showing the direction in which public art is moving, as more women begin to be recognized, memorialized, celebrated and ultimately immortalized through sculpture.
The Frederick Art Club commissioned the project, wanting to do something to honor women artists in Frederick. They chose Claire McCardell, an iconic fashion designer born (and buried) in Frederick, who was decades ahead of her time. In the 1930s and '40s, she was giving women an alternative to stiff dresses that were difficult to move around in, sometimes experimenting by taking apart her brother's clothing and reworking it when she was young. McCardell went on to create comfortable leisurewear, sportswear, matching separates, pockets and ballet flats and put side zippers and buttons in the front of clothing, which allowed women to easily dress themselves.
When the Frederick Art Club began the Claire McCardell Project in March 2019, they quickly realized how few women are represented in statue. They learned, for example, the only statues of women in New York City's Central Park depicted fictional characters, such as Alice in Wonderland, at the time (since then, the city has installed a bronze monument of women's suffrage activists, in an effort to honor more historical women figures).
"This really is political, in a lot of ways," Hempel Irani said. "Only seven percent of sculptures in America — of actual people — are of women."
When Linda Moran, steering committee chair for the Claire McCardell project, approached the Maryland Public Art Commission to learn what needed to be done for the statue to be approved, she was told that only about six public art statues of women exist in the D.C./Baltimore metropolitan area.
Frederick is now among other cities across the country that are "breaking the bronze ceiling" by bringing more diversity to public art.
"There have been so many emotions wrapped up in this and just a tremendous amount of pride to be a part of the movement to 'break the bronze ceiling,'" said Marilyn Bagel, president of the Frederick Art Club. "This is just a 'pinch-me' moment for me — and for all of us. It's like having a baby after you've been pregnant for 2 1/2 years. We've already been talking about at which parts we'll be crying at the unveiling."
On a late summer day, the Claire McCardell statue was ready to come home after being at a foundry in Loveland, Colorado, for six months, where it was cast in bronze.
Hempel Irani piled into the family pickup truck with her husband and daughter and a 680-pound, 7.5-foot Claire in the back, and they set out for the three-day, 1,680-mile journey back home to Maryland.
"It was surreal, having her there," Hempel Irani said. "It was part epic road trip, part work trip for Hempel Studios. Every time we stopped at a gas station, people, of course, would be like, 'What in the world is that?' To tell people about the woman who gave us pockets ... that was really great."
Bringing the statue home was the final leg of a long and tedious process that started with Hempel Irani sculpting the piece by hand in her studio inside the Griffin Art Center in downtown Frederick.
McCardell's outfit changed a few times as Hempel Irani worked on her, and some small details were adjusted along the way when Hempel Irani met with the Frederick Art Club to show progress and get feedback.
"Claire has just kept emerging and emerging and emerging, and Sarah has been so sensitive and sculpted her with so much integrity — from her detail to her sense of design to her sense of being elegant yet practical," said Linda Moran, who chairs the project steering committee.
Hempel Irani based the dress on a photo she found in the Hood College archives. In sculpture, McCardell is wearing one of her signature designs: matching separates with a buttoned front and side snaps on her skirt, with enormous pockets and a popped collar. Hempel Irani had the dress from the photo handmade with the same sewing techniques that would have been employed in the '40s, when McCardell designed it, and worn by a live model as she worked on the sculpture.
After creating a small model in clay, she created the larger-than-life version. When it was complete and approved, she drove the clay sculpture — in sections — to Baltimore to have a mold created. Her husband, Erik, would later drive it to the foundry in Colorado in a Uhaul.
Casting the sculpture in bronze is an intricate process in and of itself. It involves dipping a wax version of the statue into a porcelain slip, sanding it repeatedly, putting it into a huge kiln to fire the porcelain, then putting the mold in sand troughs, and finally pouring in bronze, which resembles molten lava. The bronze is roughly 2,000 degrees. After it cools for a few days, they pound it off with a mallet, clean up the bronze, weld all the pieces together, and make sure all the seams looks good. Then it's sand-blasted.
"All of this stuff is done by hand, the way Greeks did it, essentially," Hempel Irani said.
McCardell was revolutionary in her design, and women around the world continue to wear everyday designs that she pioneered.
"She's so well-known internationally in the fashion industry, but many women who wear the fashions that are the result of her original designs aren't really aware of her," Bagel said. "Her line was not continued after her passing, so it's not like the House of Chanel that has its legacy generations. It just kind of faded away. And yet her impact has been so profound. She's why we wear separates, why we have comfortable sportswear, why we have pockets, why we're wearing ballet flats. Her impact has just been so extraordinary."
McCardell was born in Frederick and was persuaded by her father to attend Hood College to study home economics, which she did. But the itch to go to New York City and study fashion never let up, and after two years at Hood, she left for the big city to study at Parsons, known at the time as the New York School of Fine and Applied Art. Soon after, she found her way to Paris, and her career as a fashion designer — and reputation for innovating women's clothing — continued to grow. She was, in fact, one of the first American designers to be recognized by name.
World War II was also a big influence on her work. A shortage of certain fabrics and materials pushed her to come up with new ideas. Her ballet flats were born during this time, when there was a leather shortage. McCardell approached Capezio to design flats that would look good with her clothing, which was more casual and had more movement to it. She wanted to create a casual look from head to toe.
McCardell continued designing garments and won awards for her work until her death at age 52 from colon cancer. Though she lived the latter part of her life in New York, she is buried in her family plot at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Frederick.
"We're thrilled to bring her to her rightful place in Frederick," Bagel said. "A lot of people have said it's about time."
The new sculpture, no doubt, elevates Frederick aesthetically, culturally and historically.
In addition to Hempel Irani, the team behind the new piece is made up almost entirely of women, from the project steering committee to the Frederick Art Club itself. Sharon Poole was brought on as the landscape designer and created the space along Carroll Creek that will house the sculpture, with attention to details down to the bricks, which mimic a pattern used in one of McCardell's designs. The landscape will be complete with bench seating and seasonal flowers. Irene Kirilloff created the wayside signage, which will provide onsite historical information about McCardell for people who want to learn more.
The statue is meant to be a destination. The team envisions young students visiting it on field trips, art classes stopping there to sketch, the occasional event or art talk onsite, and visitors including it on their walks around town to see public artwork.
The Frederick Art Club believes it will serve as an introduction for people who don't know who McCardell was, and perhaps she will inspire others to follow their dreams as she did.
The all-women club behind the project began in Frederick more than 124 years ago and remains one of the only surviving clubs like it in America. Members have been meeting long before and long after McCardell lived here to bring more art and culture to Frederick. Today, more than 100 women are in the group.
Hempel Irani first learned of the club when Becky Griffin, longtime benefactor of the arts in Frederick, invited her to a brunch with the club.
"They're ladies who brunch, but they're also ladies who are quietly kicking ass, which I love," Hempel Irani said. "They really get stuff done."
The club had never pulled off a project of this scope, and yet, once they had the idea to bring a statue of Claire McCardell to Frederick, they never thought they couldn't do it. They reached out to local organizations in 2019 to begin raising money.
"This is truly a community story," Moran said, noting that the club did not apply for city, county or state funds but relied upon private and individual donors.
The statue is a gift to the City of Frederick.
"Hats off to the Frederick community," Bagel said. "Everyone has been so supportive and encouraging."
At the public ceremony on Oct. 17, Jessica Fitzgerald, a Hood College senior who is the recipient of the Frederick Art Club's annual scholarship award, will unveil the sculpture with one of her fourth-grade art students, Ashley Oliva.
"These are generations of creative women in Frederick," Hempel Irani said. "It starts with Claire, then there's the women of the Frederick Art Club driving it, a Gen-X sculptor, Jessica at Hood College, and then her art student. We have this whole line of women, going back 100 years, who are doing this really cool thing in Frederick."