The idea came up at a New Years’ Eve party and was motivated by the discontent of the current sculptures in Christopher Park, New York City, shared the artist of the sculptor in an interview. Early Tuesday morning, community activists, organizers and artists mounted the first ever statue of a transgender person and participant of the Stonewall Riots in Christopher Park. The plastered statue Marsha P. Johnson celebrates transgender rights, Johnson’s birthday, and follows over 150 new legislative proposals limiting the rights of transgender people across the country, said in a press release.
Out of 800 total monuments, NYC Parks hosts only seven other 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 Seventh and Greenwich Avenue, but after the pandemic hit, the plans were indefinitely stalled and an artist was never picked, said in the press release.
The New York City activists took action into their own hands 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 in the press release.
Behind the plastered sculptor plastered 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 LGBT movement, said the press release.
Pallotta’s placement of Marsha is purposeful.
Segal was a white, heterosexual who’s monument is of four figures made of bronze and covered in white enamel–a pair of white cisgender (cisgender means that you align with the gender you were assigned at birth) 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 artists because that would have been discriminating on their sexual identity,” said Pallotta.
“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,” said Pallotta in the press release.
Johnson didn’t throw the “first” brick at the Stonewall riots outside the Christopher Inn in the Village on June 28, 1969 but she was a participant. In 1970, Johnson collaborated with tireless transgender activist Sylvia Rivera in co-founding STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), which provided shelter and food to LGBT homeless youth and paved way for the modern Gay Liberation Movement of the time, while bringing awareness to the epidemic of homeless transgender youth and 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, Johnson’s legacy is indispensable to New York as we know it, said in the press release.
“It was always Marsha–definitely,” said Pallotta in an interview. 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,” said Pallotta. “A really strong woman.”
“There was like 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 like a water based clay so water basically is like a malleable. 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 then now I actually have a mold that I can continue to use and like keep replicating the sculpture if I want to,” said Pallotta.
Johnson would have been 76-years-old today, born August 24, 1945 in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
The “P” in her name stands for “Pay It No Mind.”
NYC Parks was not involved with the project.
NYC Parks has since offered permits for the sculptor.
This article was updated on August 25 at 10:57 a.m.
This article was updated September 2 at 1:17 p.m.