Sunday, April 24, 2011


Wilma's life had its fair share of set backs, to say the least.  Born June 23, 1940 in Clarksville, Tennessee, she faced near-insurmountable odds.  Aside from being black, one of twenty-two children, and extremely poor, she endured countless illnesses and thanks to a combination of segregation and poverty, her mother was tapped to be her caretaker for the majority of her youth.  By the time she was merely 12 years old, Wilma had survived the measles, mumps, scarlet fever, chicken pox, and double pneumonia all the while fighting through her infantile paralysis due to polio.  It goes without saying, there was little hope of her survival let alone her ability to lead a normal, healthy life.

It was in 1952 that Wilma began to see a new life form.  It was her fourth year on the junior high/high school basketball team and after riding the pine and never setting foot on the court in an actual game for three years, she was finally given the starting guard position.  Coincidentally, at the game was a scout named Ed Temple from Tennessee State University and he was immediately impressed with Wilma's physical prowess.  Having spent the entirety of her youth going through illness and physical therapy, for Wilma, being athletic and pushing hard for success seemed to be natural choices as she gained strength and flexibility.

Ghost by Ronald Mueck (1958- ) is an incredibly lifelike sculpture of a swimsuit clad, adolescent female that stands 7 feet tall.  Known for being a hyperrealist sculptor, Mueck's work is world renowned for its size, detail, and moving sense of realism.  Ghost was created in 1998 and is currently on display at the Tate Modern in London, England.  None of Mueck's pieces are cast from his subjects but rather sculpted by hand using his friends and family for models.  Not so remarkably, it is a frequent sight to see a patron of any museum exhibiting Mueck's work to do a double-take first thinking his pieces are actual people.

The subject of Ghost is seemingly someone we have all known or met during our early years of life who gave off little significance for remembrance.  Clearly, the preteen female has yet to fully begin puberty and appears to not wear a swimsuit but have it wear her. Her leaning posture seems to indicate that she's been cast aside either by ridicule or shame and now forcibly slumps against the wall with her head turned downwards and to one side.  Slouching, unattractive, undeveloped, awkward, and lanky, she appears to be taking a moment to move aside for others while grasping the enveloping emotions of feeling dejected and inadequate.

What is incredible for me to experience when I see this piece is that I'm not hung up on the detail despite it being extraordinary.  No, what I find is I'm emotionally moved on a deep level by the vulnerable qualities of such an individual coupled with a racing mind to recall an acquaintance from my elementary school days to immediately relate this piece with real world experience.  I'm saddened to see what could be a doctor or writer or someone else of great influence later on in life going through insecurities that have now taken over control of her own body.  With her hands tucked behind her legs, only her slumping shoulders and turned head indicate her intense emotional suffering; otherwise I would think she'd be trying to cover up with her arms folded somewhere in front of her.  Essentially, she has become overwhelmed by a culmination of thoughts and realities that have exhausted her mind, body, and soul.

But where there is darkness, light shines brightest.

Wilma's life as a child and preteen seem to be encapsulated in Mueck's piece.  At some point during her youth, Wilma must have experienced numerous moments of emotional strife much like our figure, yet inspired by her mother's relentless care and idolization of Jesse Owens, she was able to overcome it all.  She eventually went on to achieve several women's high school basketball records and attained an athletic full-ride scholarship to TSU in track and field.  On September 7, 1960, in Rome, Italy, Wilma became the first American woman to win three gold medals in the Olympics and was dubbed "the fastest woman in history".

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