Marsha P. Johnson statue reminds us that we cannot stay idle
The idea of a statue to honor Marsha P. Johnson came up at a New Years’ Eve party, motivated by the discontent of the current sculptures in New York City’s Christopher Park, New York City.
Many community activists, organizers, and artists began a campaign for the first ever statue of a transgender person and participant of the Stonewall Riots.
The plaster statue of Marsha P. Johnson celebrates transgender rights and Johnson’s birthday. Organizers see it as an answer to more than 150 new legislative proposals limiting the rights of transgender people across the country.
Out of 800 monuments in New York city parks only seven are statues of historical women. In 2019, the Mayor’s Office announced plans for a statue of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera on the corner of 7th and Greenwich Avenue but those plans were stalled by the pandemic and an artist was never picked.
The New York City activists acted on their own and erected the statue themselves. “We cannot stay idle and wait for the city to build statues for us. We must create representation by and for our own communities,” said Eli Erlick, sculptor coordinator.
Behind the sculpture by Jesse Pallotta is the Gay Liberation Monument by George Segal. Controversial in its 1980 inception, the monument recently came under fire when it was painted black to contest Black and Latina erasure of the LGBTQ movement.
They say Pallotta’s placement of Marsha is purposeful.
Segal was a white, heterosexual whose monument is of four figures made of bronze and covered in white enamel—a pair of white cisgender men and a pair of white cisgender women who are supposed to embody the participants of the Stonewall riots. “They had no reviewing process with it or kind of like community process in order to elect an LGBT artist, and even in the archives in the 1980s when they were doing it, they were, there’s like archives saying that it would have been discriminating to choose a gay artist because that would have been discriminating on their sexual identity,” Pallotta said. “At a time when we are taking down statues, I think it is just as important to collectively consider what is put up in public spaces, the process that is used to erect statues and reimagine the function of monumental work.”
Johnson didn’t throw the “first” brick at the Stonewall riots outside the Stonewall in the Village on June 28, 1969, but she was a participant. In 1970, Johnson collaborated with transgender activist Sylvia Rivera in co-founding STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) which provided shelter and food to LGBT homeless youth and paved the way for the modern Gay Liberation Movement, bringing awareness to the epidemic of homeless transgender youth and oppression of transgender rights.
Johnson participated in the Stonewall riots which are widely considered the beginning of the modern queer and transgender movement. In the 80s and 90s, Johnson worked with ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) to combat AIDS and the government’s lack of action. Johnson was a Black, trans sex worker, a survivor, and a Warhol muse. “It was always Marsha—definitely,” Pallotta said.
The process of sculpting Marsha’s bust took approximately three months. Pallotta spent many weeks combing through the details of Marsha: her smile, her eyes, her level of seriousness, printing 50 archived photographs from the artist, activist, and filmmaker Tourmaline, and of course, sculpting. “There were a lot of pictures of her at protests and she looks so confident and secure and certain, and that was kind of how I wanted to depict her,” Pallotta said. “A really strong woman.
“There were times where it broke, and I had to restart. I was also in a learning process with it. And then after you sculpt it in a water-based clay and you can just like kind of push it around, it’s a really fun material to work with. Once you do that you have to make a mold. So then I made a silicone mold and now I actually have a mold that I can continue to use and keep replicating the sculpture if I want to.”
Johnson would have been 76 this year, born August 24, 1945 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The NYC Department of Parks and recreation was not involved with the project initially but has since offered permits for the sculptor.