They made her feel welcome, invited, known. And Laura Lyster-Mensh was finding the little bronze statues everywhere.
“These are fierce little statues. They look cute at first —they’re not cute,” she said.
Signed “fearless girls”, the little works of art are scattered throughout Capitol Hill. Most of them are placed inside ornamental call boxes that act like small house-shaped wrought iron frames. Others were put in seemingly more casual locations, such as a bench in Lincoln Park.
They are visual representations of the questions Americans are grappling with around politics, race, representation and history.
Every one of the miniature creations called out to Lyster-Mensh, who describes herself as a mixed-race person “living on the color line.”
She felt a pull to these fearless artists. She had to find out who they were, she said, and spoiler alert: she did. Further spoiler: there will be no more works added.
But in the process of finding the Fearless Girls, Lyster-Mensh said, the statues transformed her into a Washingtonian.
Relating so strongly to the imagery, Lyster-Mensh couldn’t stop searching for the artist, posting on neighborhood list serve and following social media leads until she was sure she had found them.
Her daughter, an artist, cautioned Lyster-Mensh that the artist might not want to be found, or identified, from a basic shyness or to a bigger concern: “This is protest art,” Lyster-Mensh recalled her daughter telling her, “it’s not supposed to be about the artist. They may not want their name attached to it.”
Her daughter was right, Lyster-Mensh discovered. Although she found and interviewed the artists, an anonymous collective, for her podcast, at their request she did not disclose their identities, except to say “they are not here on Capitol Hill” right now.
Although most of Capitol Hill didn’t begin to discover the works until November or December, Lyster-Mensh learned that artists installed their works throughout the Hill beginning in late October: right before the 2020 General Election.
Rather than sneak in under cover of night, the artists told her, they went in broad daylight to the streets of the nations Capitol, trying to act like they were “supposed to be there.”
“But you’re fearless,” Lyster-Mensh said.
“Yes, but it was nervous-making,” was the artists’ reply.
The location of the works of art was not random, Lyster-Mensh learned. The artists placed many of the works of art along the route they believed Mitch McConnell might take to the Capitol Building. Others were positioned to contextualize other art, in Lincoln and Stanton Park or in Black Lives Matter Plaza.
Lyster-Mensh saw the first of the sculptures when she and her husband, a stand-up comic, came to Capitol Hill at the end of last year to look at rentals before selling their home in Warrenton, VA. They eventually chose to live near Stanton Park. They moved in early November, right after the election.
She was at first unsure if she belonged in the neighborhood. Herself of mixed-race descent, she said that she would look out her window at the playground where black women were holding the hands and pushing the strollers of small white children, and wonder how she fit in.
The Fearless Girls helped her find her place, she said.
“I just felt like, Fearless Girls kind of got me. I need[ed] to figure out who this is,” she said. “It was this wonderful introduction to living here on Capitol Hill, because it changed the whole way I look at living here, to be honest,” she said.
They also helped her meet the neighbors. She peppered the neighborhood list-servs and the comment sections of local blogs with photos and questions about the artists. Neighbors began to send her clues, and photos. She and her husband would take walks throughout the neighborhood, searching for more sculpture.
Often when she stopped to look at one, someone would speak to her, and often they would trade contact information. “How else would I meet so many neighbors right now?” Lyster-Mensh asked.
Each statue portrays an aspect of American politics and history, tackling an issue that burns in the American consciousness, even if the figures portrayed have been dead for a century or more.
At Constitution Avenue and Third Street SE, the Fearless Girls portrayed Sally Hemings, a woman enslaved by former President Thomas Jefferson. In the depiction, she stands proudly before him dressed in chains, holding a baby, a vessel of water and grouped with her children; Jefferson stands at a 90 degree angle, holding a giant key.
Script in the background tells the story of Hemings children, five of whom were borne to Jefferson. Those who survived infancy were eventually freed, two during Jefferson’s lifetime, and the rest by his will. There is no record of Heming’s emancipation.
Lyster-Mensh said it was the portrayal and acknowledgement of Hemings and her children as people, and as relatives to the former president, that drew her notice.
“She was his sister-in-law,” Lyster-Mensh said of Hemings, who was a half-sister to Jefferson’s wife, Martha. “But most white people don’t speak of it that way. [They] don’t speak of their children as people, but as slaves.”
Other statues portrayed more recent presidents: in one small bronze placed at Seventh and East Capitol, a seated Obama is just about to rise; Lincoln stands in front of him. “Replace the Emancipation Monument with ‘Stepping into His Shoes’,” the script in the background reads, a clear reference to the controversial statue at the center of Lincoln Park.
One portrays former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg standing next to a cage containing the figures of children, portrayed in stark shades of brown. Another, now missing, piece found at 13th Street and East Capitol depicted the White House behind barbed wire with toy soldiers on the roof; below the model mansion hid an orange baby.
You can hear all about Lyster-Mensh’s quest and from the artists themselves, documented in her podcast, The Auldton Laughing Club. The podcast is based on Lyster-Mensh’s 2015 book of the same name which tackles racial issues through the story of the fictional town of Auldton. “The podcast roughly follows the theme of the book,” Lyster-Mensh said, adding that in retrospect, the book is about many of the issues raised throughout 2020.
So are the statues.
Lyster-Mensh said that the artists are happy that people are engaged with the issues raised by the statues, and that they care about them.
So is Lyster-Mensh. “I am very grateful to them,” she said, “It feels like a connection to this community, because I have seen all this delight. It’s been a year of reckoning around race, and I’m glad that I got to feel that these issues were cared about in this community.”
You can hear the voice of the artist in episode 18s of the Auldton Laughing Club podcast. Lyster-Mensh recounts her search starting in episode 17: https://https://auldtonlaughingclub.libsyn.com/ Lyster-Mensh is planning an audio walking tour, but in the meantime, find her map of the statues online.