In the annals of American history, there is nothing quite the equal of the Westward migration. Whether they went in search of faith, fortune or adventure, the men and women who moved across the plains in the 19th century changed the face of America and laid the foundation of the country we have today.
It is not surprising that their deeds have the power to still capture our interest, or that we still look for ways to pay tribute to their legacy.
One of those ways is through a three-and-a-half-city-block monument in downtown Omaha, Neb. And one of the creators of that monument is Utah sculptor Edward J. Fraughton.
The "Pioneer Courage" monument, commissioned by the First National Bank of Omaha, features figures that are one-and-a-quarter times life size, which makes them both "heroic and approachable," Fraughton says.
In all, the monument is planned to have a wagon train 360 feet long — six wagons pulled by horses, mules and oxen will be accompanied by 40 adults, plus children and small animals and birds.
It is a cooperative effort; in addition to Fraughton, Utahn Blair Buswell and Texan Kent Ullberg are contributing to the project, which, due to its size, has been done in phases.
Phase one was shipped and installed in 2005. At a reception at his West Jordan studio on Wednesday, Fraughton gave friends, local artists and others a view of a monumental piece from phase two, which is being shipped to Omaha on Friday.
This section includes a wagon pulled by two teams of oxen, which has been mired in mud, but with some pushing and guidance from drivers seems about to continue on. The faces of the women and children on the wagon reflect both the courage and anxiety of pioneering. The men show the intense labor required. The wagon holds necessary barrels and weapons, but tucked under the canvas cover is the end of a harp, obviously a prized possession.
"Many of the pioneers were people of culture and refinement," Fraughton says. He hopes the wagon will make viewers think of what it must have been like to leave all that behind, taking only what could be carried as they went to find a new life. Their sacrifices were tremendous, he says. He wants to convey that.
Art, he says, should not just be something that is nice to look at. "It should be more than decorative; it should be something that people can relate to in a personal way, that they can feel an emotional connection with." The best art, he says, communicates without words in a universal way.
Another part of phase two is a figure of a scout/hunter on horseback. "I like to call it 'Meals on Wheels.' Of course, the pioneers could not take everything they needed to eat for a many-month journey. They had to find what they could along the way."
That piece was installed in Omaha about two years ago.
There are plans for a third phase of the monument, "but in today's economy, we'll have to wait and see," Fraughton says.
Still, he says, the Bank of Omaha is much like a modern di Medici. And the world needs more di Medicis, he says. "I was in Florence one time and went to see Michelangelo's tomb. And there was Botticelli, and there was Donatello. So much genius coming out of that one little town, and in large part, that was because of patrons like the di Medicis."
Often in our world, and in our education system, Fraughton says, "the arts get pushed to the background. Yet, it is through the arts that we discover who we are."
He hopes this pioneer monument will help people remember and appreciate "the struggle and hardship our forebears went through, so that we can have what we have."
Viewers should also be able to appreciate the process involved in creating such monumental figures. They all start out as small, clay models; get enlarged through a computer digitizing process; and go through a series of positive-negative steps involving foam, clay and wax before they are finally turned to bronze.
All the engineering must be done early on, says Ted Fraughton, the son in charge of taking a piece from clay to bronze.
Consider, he says, that the wagon box alone weighs some 7,000 pounds; the undercarriage is another 3,500 pounds. The whole piece weighs 11,000 pounds. "Bronze alone can't support that, so we have to have a stainless steel infrastructure inside the wagon," he says. The wagon is so tall that it also won't clear the underpasses between here and Omaha, "so we have to design it so that it can come apart and ship in pieces."
So, it is a complex, time-consuming process. So far, Ted Fraughton says, "we've given about eight years of our lives to this project." On the other hand, though, "we are creating something that will be there forever, and really means something. Not every artist can say that."