Detroit sculptor Artis Lane didn’t just know civil rights icon Rosa Parks. They were friends.
“She was queen,” said Lane, whose bronze bust of Parks, once in the Smithsonian, moved in January to President Joe Biden’s Oval Office.
Now, Lane’s works of Parks are featured in a new exhibition, “Steps Toward Justice: Artis Lane’s Portraits of Rosa Parks” which opens September 11 at Collected Detroit, 2439 Fourth Street in Detroit. It runs until October 23.
The exhibit, which features a bronze bust very similar to the one in the Oval Office, tells the story of both Parks and Lane through art and history. It includes some photos of the two friends, a lithograph, and another sculpture Lane created of Parks. It’s based on the famous 1956 photo that shows Parks walking up the steps of the courthouse in Montgomery, Alabama.
The small bronze sculpture, called “Steps Toward Justice”, is placed at the top of an actual staircase so that visitors can experience it from a different perspective. It represents Parks’ hand reaching just above the balustrade of the stairs. And it’s symbolic, said Lane, 94.
“To accentuate the movement, if you solidify it by putting (your hand) on it (the railing), it loses its upward movement,” Lane said. “And she was a very godly woman, so it’s up to the sky.”
Lane was a pioneer in her own way. Growing up in a small Ontario village that attracted many free blacks and former slaves, she was drawn to art from a young age. The first black woman to attend the Cranbrook Academy of Art, Lane moved to Detroit when she married her husband. She eventually moved to California, where she lived for several decades, before returning to Detroit in late 2019 to be closer to her family.
Lane, who also lived in Ann Arbor for part of his childhood, recalls meeting Parks on a walk in Hamtramck. Parks was visiting her in California and it was in Lane’s garden that Parks posed for the sculpture now in the Oval Office. She remembers asking Parks to take off her glasses and change the hairstyle she usually wears – a bun at the base of her neck.
“I said ‘Mrs Parks, I would love for you to take the braids and wrap them around your head like a crown,’” Lane said. “… As a British citizen in Canada, I have always considered her more queen than these (real) queens.”
Art historian Deborah Lubera Kawsky, who has lectured on Lane and suggested the idea of an exhibition of her works by Rosa Parks after the bust was moved to the Oval Office earlier this year, has stated that Lane’s works capture the warmth of Parks.
There is a “timeless aspect but also that personal aspect,” Kawsky said.
Parks’ faith – and his commitment to her – is a theme that emerges throughout Lane’s work on her. In a lithograph of the famous photo of her on that Montgomery bus, titled “The Beginning,” Lane added faint images in the windows, including an American flag, a church, and a school.
As well as being deeply spiritual, Parks was smart, sweet and funny, Lane said. She was also unfazed. Lanes remembers being in Washington, DC, with Parks when someone cursed Parks, trying to incite him.
“Nothing made her angry,” said Lane, who also created Sojourner Truth’s sculpture now on Capitol Hill, the first of a black woman. “… She knew God would take care of her.”
Along with Rosa Parks, the exhibit also features a painting of Lane’s great-great-aunt Mary Ann Shadd Cary, abolitionist, writer, newspaper editor and lawyer.
Lane said she hopes visitors to the exhibit will walk away with their own sense of faith, especially amid COVID-19.
“You are supposed to love your enemies,” Lane said. “Can you imagine that? You have no enemy when you love them.”
“March towards justice”
Portraits of Rosa Parks by artist Lane
at Collected Detroit, 2439 Fourth Street
Open from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on September 11; until October 23
Go to collectédetroit.com.