On 9/11, Franconia remembers Michael Richards

Today the folks at Franconia Sculpture Park are remembering a great artist and good friend who died in the attacks on the World Trade Center 11 years ago today.

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Image courtesy Franconia Sculpture Park

The public is invited tonight to the dedication the permanent installation of the late artist Michael Richards’ sculpture “Are You Down?”

Richards was born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. Franconia Artistic Director John Hock says Richards was an internationally recognized artist in the midst of a promising career.

In 2000, Michael received an FSP/Jerome Fellowship at Franconia Sculpture Park. During his residency he created the sculpture “Are You Down?” It’s a multi-layered artwork that raises awareness of the Tuskegee Airmen’s impact on World War II and the history of achieving civil rights for African-Americans.

After working at Franconia, Michael was selected as artist-in-residence for ‘World Views’, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s residency program in the World Trade Center. Michael was working in his studio during the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.

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Michael Richards, standing next to his work “Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian”; many of Richards’ works were inspired by the Tuskegee Airmen

Image: The Studio Museum in Harlem

Hock says that while Richards was working on the original “Are You Down?” – which is made of fiberglass resin – he mentioned that he eventually wanted to cast it in bronze, but he never got the chance. In the years since his death the resin sculpture – still at Franconia – began to deteriorate.

In order to honor Michael Richards’s life and legacy, the staff and Board of Directors at Franconia Sculpture Park have discussed ways to make the artwork permanently on display at the park. Rubber molds were taken off of the original work in order for it to be recreated in bronze, which is an archival material. Hundreds of hours of volunteer time went into restoring “Are You Down?”. The East Central Regional Arts Council provided two grants of $15,000 each to help fund the project and we launched a Kickstarter project to raise the additional $14,603 to help with the remaining costs and installation.

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In “Are You Down?” three parachutists who have fallen from the sky sit disconsolate on the ground in what appear to be puddles of tar.

Image courtesy Franconia Sculpture Park

“Are You Down?” is composed of three life-sized human figures, cast from Richards’ own face and body. They represent three downed aviators from the all-black Tuskegee Airmen’s Squadron of the Second World War. Hock says the work speaks not only of the exhilaration of flight but also of the dreams of freedom that have crashed to the ground.

During his tragically short career, Richards’ work challenged oppression and addressed issues of social injustice. Are You Down? is a multi-layered sculpture that raises awareness of the Tuskegee Airmen’s impact on World War II and the history of achieving civil rights for African Americans. The sculpture not only memorializes and preserves Richards’ artistic legacy, but also carries with it the weight of this pivotal moment in U.S. history.

This is the first permanent installation at Franconia Sculpture Park. Normally the park’s exhibition is constantly changing. However Hock says Richards’ death was significant both for the immediate community and the country, and merits this remembrance.

  • Helen Drivas

    My husband and I saw the “Tar Baby” sculpture today the the NC State Museum of Art in Raleigh. When I read from the side notes that Michael Williams died on 9/11 at the World Trade Center, I was deeply moved, especially because I just happened to be there to see his work on the anniversary of his death.

    I am so pleased that the Franconia Sculpture Park honors Williams’s memory.