Mason Art

Posted: June 21, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

George Mason Statue Symbolizes the Man and the University

By Robin Herron

Head of George Mason
Photo by Judith Desplechin

The center of George Mason’s Fairfax Campus is literally and figuratively the seven-and-a-half-foot bronze statue of George Mason that stands at the foot of the pedestrian plaza running between Robinson Hall and the Johnson Center.

Only eight years old, the statue has quickly filled a multitude of roles. It’s a landmark to help visitors get their bearings, the perfect monument for graduates to pose with in their caps and gowns, a welcoming entrée to a community of scholars, and a mannequin for promoting campus events. Images of the statue are used in university publications, on the university web site, and in displays and videos used for student recruitment. It’s a tangible figure that helps represent the abstract concept of George Mason University.

The impetus for commissioning the statue came from Mason students, and the artist was selected through a campuswide vote. Major funding was provided by the George Mason Fund for the Arts, through the work of the Arts Gala Committee. Additional funding was provided by the Virginia Daughters of the American Revolution, students, and other friends of the university. Both the statue and the George W. Johnson Center were dedicated on April 12, 1996.

The statue shows George Mason presenting his first draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which was the basis for the later U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights. Beside him is a model of a writing table that is still in the study at Gunston Hall, Mason’s Virginia estate. The books on the table—volumes of Hume, Locke, and Rousseau—represent influences in his thought.

Although “George” has his serious side, he’s not without a sense of humor, either. He’s been known to sport a diaper for Week of the Young Child, to grasp a bouquet of green-and-gold balloons on First Fridays, and to wear a sandwich board touting Greek Life during rush week. University Life has responsibility for seeing that George’s various decorations are not harmful to his health—paint, adhesives, and glue can damage the bronze surface. As a result, campus groups wanting to use the statue to publicize their events must get approval from that office.

George Mason statue decorated
One of the statue’s many incarnations:

“George, the Evolved Male”
Photo by Evan Cantwell

Wendy M. Ross, a Bethesda, Md.-based artist, created the statue. She is well-known for her bronze portraits, including those of Justice William O. Douglas for the Supreme Court of the United States, a full-length statue of Rep. Phillip Burton that overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, a bust of Sen. Henry Jackson for the U.S. Senate, and a bust of former Gannett Chairman and CEO Allen Neuharth, which graces Gannett headquarters.

The statue of George Mason on the Fairfax Campus preceded Ross’ statue of Mason on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. One-third larger than life, that statue, also in bronze, depicts Mason seated on a stone bench beneath an arbor with his books, the same volumes that the university’s statue features. Unveiled in 2002, the monument was the first on the National Mall dedicated to an individual who did not serve as president, and was the product of a bipartisan effort begun in Congress in 1989 to erect a national memorial to the patriot. The Board of Regents of Gunston Hall directed the project, and the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America cosponsored it. J. Carter Brown, former director of the National Gallery of Art and chairman of the commission that approved the Mall’s memorial, said it was “one of the best pieces of public art” he had reviewed in his 30 years as chairman.

George Mason statue National Mall
The George Mason statue on the National Mall

Surprisingly, Ross has also produced an extensive body of abstract steel sculpture, which is in many public and private collections. The pieces include a horizontal 100-foot welded steel work facing Boston Harbor at the Boston World Trade Center. It was also completed in 2002.

In an interview in Sculpture magazine that year, Ross commented, “I don’t view my approach to portraiture as inherently foreign to my other work. While a dual practice may be uncommon, I feel that it has helped to hone my perceptual skills, loosened up the joints of my psyche, and grounded my development in two distinct yet related communities. In creating a portrait, I am committed to capturing and conveying the energy that characterizes a particular individual. Portraiture is an abstraction of an entire life—a ‘biography’ that can be condensed into a single gesture or attitude.”

An internationally recognized artist, Ross studied at the University of Wisconsin and the San Francisco Art Institute. She received her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1973.

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