A short history and commentary on Lamentations Group, a 1989 sculpture by Judith Brown
© 1997 Alison J. Sylvester
Five statues of women walking together is the first thing people see. All of their heads are bowed in a respectful, yet sad manner. The women closest to the front seem the most mournful, with their posture slouched and heads bent. The first time I saw these women I felt their sorrow and seemed to be quieted in their presence. The area around the statues is usually quiet and serene except when students are going to and from classes. There is an atmosphere of sorrow around the women. It almost seems as though students avoid them.
"Lamentations Group, 1989" is by Judith Brown (1931-1992). The statues were given as a gift to the University of Vermont by Brown and the Stettenheim Foundation in 1993: who make their home next the Kalkin and in front of the Flemming Museum. The five women seem to be wandering through the grove of honey locust trees. The women are all of similar size, shape, and configuration. They have a flowing robe around their hips that goes over their left shoulder. The statues are made of welded scrap medal that has been painted black.
According to The Merriam Webster Dictionary, lament is a noun that means to mourn aloud or to cry out in grief. It can also mean to express sorrow or regret for (pg. 416). Many people feel this sorrow when around the "Lamentations Group." The first time I saw the statues I felt they were odd, yet very sad. My thoughts were of a funeral march. As with most students, I did not stay long to look at the statues because of the overwhelming sense of remorse.
Lamentations is also a small chapter in The Bible in the Old Testament between Jeremiah and Ezekiel. There are only five chapters in the Book, all are short poems. These poems are the mourning the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. (The Good News Bible, pg. 816 OT). The poems, in order, are titled "The Sorrows of Jerusalem," "The Lord's Punishment," "Punishment, Repentance, and Hope," "Jerusalem After Its Fall," and finally, "A Prayer for Mercy." In the end, these poems also give the reader a sense of hope in the future. Lamentations are also used by the Jews in their worship of the destruction of their holy city.
Most students know where these statues are and are able to describe them. Christy Hanna, a senior, said the first time she saw the statues she was on the CATS bus her freshman year. "They're kind of scary and no one really pays attention to them." Lauren Courcelle, another senior, said that, "Everyone knows they're there, but no one really knows about them. They're a mystery." Both of the seniors wondered why more wasn't known about these odd looking statues since everyone knows they're there.
Brown was a New York artist who also had a part time home in Vermont. Brown died in 1993 of cancer. Before her death she saw a ballet by Martha Graham called "Lamentation." It was this dance that inspired her to make "Lamentations Group" (Burlington Free Press, September 12, 1993, 2D). For a long time before the statues were donated to the University of Vermont they stood in Brown's back yard, according to the Free Press.
When the Burlington Free Press interviewed Peter Stettenheim, Judith Brown's brother, he did not want to make any interpretations of the statues. He felt that the statues spoke for themselves. He was also not sure that his sister had any specific meaning behind the statues. Stettenheim is the president of the Stettenheim Foundation, the organization that donated the statues. The Stettenheim is based in Lebanon, New Hampshire.
One of the odd things about "Lamentations Group" is how they appear at different times during the day. In the middle of the day the statues seem to be taking a walk. If someone walks by very quickly by s/he may think the statues are students going to class. The statues can also be seen from the Bailey Howe Memorial Library. When a person looks out the windows they are able to see the statues from a distance. >From far away the statues give a person a feeling of isolation and solitude. At night the statues are very forbidding. There are spotlights that shine up on the statues from the ground. The lights shine up on the statues and transform the statues into something evil. Many people avoid "Lamentations Group" at night because of the way they look.
"Lamentations Group" changes with the seasons as well. In the summer, when I came for Freshman Orientation, the statues seemed to give me hope. I felt the sorrow and acknowledged it, but among the green trees the statues seemed to be hopeful. The green trees seemed to give life an optimistic appearance to the women. In the winter the statues give viewers a different emotion. During one of the first snowfalls I walked by the women. In poetry and in symbolism snow is used as a sign for death and mourning. I was filled with an overwhelming sense of grief. The women had snow of their shoulders and on the tops of their heads. With snow on them, the woman appear to be far more melancholy.
One thing I found very difficult about researching this topic was the lack of information. During my research I became aware of a great deal of ignorance. When using the University of Vermont's homepage, on the internet, the name of the statues was not even used. They were described as "The Statues by Kalkin." I found very little information in the Library, Archives, or Special Collections. In most areas I found no information.
Everyone I talked to was pleased that I was researching the statues because they had always been curious about them. I find this to be very disturbing. Everyone knows the statues are there, but no one knows the history or even the name of the art. These statues have not even been on the campus for five years, yet there is no information to accompany them. My largest source of information was the plaque next to the statues. This is wrong. If a school, university, or museum is going to exhibit art they must also have a history of it. There should be records of why the statues where donated to the University, a biography of the artist and why they were placed in a groove of honey locust trees.
It alarms me to know that history is not being properly recorded. We are giving students and future students a negative message when we do not record simple facts and dates. The University of Vermont owes it to the artist and to the donators to have a history of the statues that are placed on the campus. Statues are bought or received for a purpose other than to dress up the campus. It should be recorded why the statues were made and why they are here. Artists make their creations which a purpose in mind and school administrators need to make it their responsibility to record them. With out this history there is no purpose to the art and if there was it has been lost.
"Lamentations Group" is a great addition to the University of Vermont campus. Judith Brown's creations will forever walk through the honey locust trees next to Kalkin. Even as the seasons change, the statues will change along with them. The statues have individual meaning to every person who sees them. One can only guess what Brown felt when she watched Martha Graham's ballet. These beautiful statues are a result of that inspiration. The grieving women are a permanent part of the campus and the student body.
- Courcelle, Lauren, Personal interview, 11 November, 1996.
- Good News Bible, "Lamentations," Old Testament, New York: Thomas Nelson INC. Publishers, 1976.
- Hanna, Christy, Personal interview, 11 November, 1996.
- Mish, Frederick C., eds. The Merriam Webster Dictionary, Massachusetts: Merriam-Webster, 1994.
- Pollak, Sally. "These Ladies will always walk in UVM's Grove." Burlington Free Press 12 Sep. 1993: D2.
Last modified November 13 2009 11:12 AM