Pocahontas in Motion

Sculptor Ben Victor teams with the Pocahontas Project to honor a princess.

Ben Victor is applying little clay balls the size of BBs to a tiny necklace wrapped around the upturned neck of Pocahontas.

“She’s stepping forward but she’s looking back,” says the Boise, Idaho-based artist, one of the most accomplished figurative sculptors in America. He’s applying details to his current work-in-progress, a 36″ Maquette (scale model) of the Powhatan Indian princess. Beautifully rendered, this Pocahontas is in motion, her hair flying in the breeze, her gaze determined.

“I saw it as this young woman in this incredibly tough time of change,” Victor says, pressing the bits of clay into place. “This is a symbol of her as the first ambassador between the native people, the settlers and England, an important icon.”

Fresh off of the U.S. Capitol unveiling of his latest nine-foot statue – of Arkansas Civil Rights icon Daisy Bates – Victor came to Richmond last week to showcase his in-progress three-foot Pocahontas figure, and to gather final input from tribal leaders, historians and, in a special tented workspace outside White House Catering at the 17th Street Farmers Market, plain ol’ city passersby.

The maquette is being commissioned by the Pocahontas Project, a nonprofit that, according to its mission statement, “uses the power of the life, legend and legacy of the woman known as Pocahontas to inspire hope and purposeful action in people around the world, collectively working towards a peaceful and sustainable future for all mankind.”

Victor, one of the top figurative sculptors in the country, was in Richmond last week at the 17th Street Farmers Market to showcase his in-progress, three-foot-tall Pocahontas figure.

It’s supposed to be the first of several figurative tributes, says Rick Tatnall, executive director of the project. “We don’t have a final landing spot for her yet, It’s somewhat speculative but the hope is that Ben’s visit might inspire some interest in the installation of this statue, and also inspire interest in a larger than life statue of Pocahontas and her father Chief Powhatan somewhere in the Richmond area.”

In 2020, when the Commonwealth was considering who would replace the Robert E. Lee statue as Virginia’s chosen icon in the U.S. Capitol Statuary Hall, Tatnall partnered with Rappahannock Chief Anne Richardson in an effort to promote Pocahontas. “Ultimately [Civil Rights leader] Barbara Johns was chosen, no problem there,” he says. The failed effort connected Tatnall to Victor, and a search for alternate pedestals in a city about to vacate its Confederate statues. “To maintain the connection, and to continue the idea, we commissioned this smaller statue of Pocahontas.”

Looking for a landing spot

Victor, 45, is not just any contemporary sculptor. The California native, who studied at Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota, has the most works of any artist installed in the U.S. Capitol, having become the youngest sculptor, at 26, to see his epic likeness of Sarah Winnemucca, a 19th-century Paiute activist, chosen to represent the state of Nevada. In addition to Bates and Winnemucca, he is also responsible for the statues of Chief Standing Bear (Nebraska) and Norman Borlaug, the so-called father of “the Green Revolution” (Iowa).

Tatnall says that he’s submitted an idea to Henrico County for a larger, Victor-carved statue of Chief Powhatan and Pocahontas to be the centerpiece of a Virginia Indian Tribute Park on land along Route 5 at the Henrico Varina Library. “I am also hoping to inspire interest in the possibility of a statue going on Libby Hill at the site of the former Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument.”

Victor’s six days in Richmond included meetings with historians at Henricus Historical Park, a visit to the Library of Virginia’s “Indigenous Perspectives” exhibit, and conversations with members of various indigenous tribes. These connections have been valuable, the sculptor says, not just to this one small statue but future figures as well. “I’ve had a lot of input from the Native American community here. There are certain types of shells that would be used, copper earrings… I changed her feet because we were shown a different type of moccasin at Henricus.” He has also been aided with materials provided by the Jamestown Yorktown Foundation

Upper Mattaponi Chief Frank Adams joined six members of his tribe to see the work, including the 24-year-old tribal citizen who served as one of the models for the princess’s face. “I thought the artist did a wonderful job,” the Chief says. “I know it’s a work in progress but some of the detail was very impressive.”

The Upper Mattaponi are very supportive of the Pocahontas Project, Adams says, but he admits that some tribes are less enthusiastic about using Pocahontas as a symbol for Virginia’s Native Americans. “Certain people don’t see the need,” he says.

“Pocahontas was created for the Europeans. Her real name was Matoaka, not Pocahontas. Realistically, she could be seen, and I hope she is seen, as the first foreign diplomat of what is now the United States. She did travel to England and, unfortunately, she died there. And although I’m sure she traveled there against her will, I think her presence improved the attitude toward the native people.”

Adams still hopes that a statue of Pocahontas, with or without her father Chief Powhatan, can stand in the Capitol, but he would be pleased too if it stood “in a respectful place” somewhere in Virginia. “It depends on where you want to start remembering history? Do you only remember it from 250 years ago when the United States was first born? I hope the state of Virginia, and other folks, will understand the importance of remembering that this country was Indian country long before it was the United States.”

For more on the Pocahontas Project and the Pocahontas sculpture, go to https://www.pocahontasproject.org 

 

 

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