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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, October 11, 2009

An unorthodox design

By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Restoration specialist Michael Jones applies a special wax to the Damien statue outside the state Capitol. Debate over the unorthodox bronze figure spread to the national stage before the statue was installed in Washington's Statuary Hall and in Honolulu.


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There are hundreds of depictions of Father Damien in art. Statues, stained glass windows, paintings.

But perhaps none are as recognizable as the bronze statue that fronts the state Capitol building.

Its twin sits in Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C.

New York sculptor Marisol Escobar crafted the piece in response to a call for submissions from Hawai'i's Statuary Hall Commission. Her concept was chosen out of 66 entries in 1967, but not before plenty of debate over whether it accurately represented Father Damien or was too modern in design.

All these years later, Escobar says she stands by her work.

"I am proud of the work and that it evokes strong emotions in the people who view it," said the 79-year-old artist, in an e-mail from New York.

When asked whether she would change anything about it, she said, "It would be the same, as I saw him in my mind."

The boxy bronze statue was unveiled in 1969 80 years after Father Damien died in Kalaupapa.

It depicts Father Damien near the end of his life.

Scars from Hansen's disease are visible on his face. His right arm is in a sling. And he's holding a cane.

In a 5-to-2 vote, the Statuary Hall Commission chose Escobar's contemporary piece over more classical depictions of Father Damien. But not everyone supported the decision. The state House got involved, calling for the commission to use a statue by sculptor Nathan Cabot Hale, which showed a young Father Damien.

The debate got so fiery it garnered national attention. In 1967, Escobar told TIME magazine that she sculpted an older Father Damien visibly suffering from disease because "he had accomplished something then."

Eventually, the state Senate added its voice to the controversy.

It supported the Escobar piece and appropriated funds for a second statue to front the state Capitol.

In a resolution, senators said the Escobar sculpture will "provide an unforgettable visual experience."

The state House backed down after that, voting 37 to 14 to support the Escobar depiction.

Escobar said she crafted the sculpture after reading up on Father Damien's life and looking at photos.

She called him a "man of great devotion and caring." She added that her hope for those who see the statue is that they gain an understanding of "the role of compassion in his life and its importance in the world."