A statue of Vel Phillips is one bureaucratic step closer to Capitol Square. A sub-committee tasked with considering the statue proposal made several recommendations Tuesday.
Vel Phillips was the first African American woman to graduate from UW-Madison School of Law. She was the first woman to sit on Milwaukee’s Common Council. When she became a judge in the 1970’s she was the first woman judge in Milwaukee County and the first African American judge in Wisconsin. Later she was elected Wisconsin’s Secretary of State–again, she was the first woman and first African American elected to a statewide office.
If approved, Phillips will be the first Black person and the only person of color to be represented around the capitol.
Tuesday, a subcommittee of Wisconsin’s State Capitol and Executive Residence Board met to make recommendations regarding the statue. The group unanimously decided to recommend the location as the capitol exterior facing Hamilton Street. They also recommended the board overlook a rule that prohibits any new statues.
The subcommittee also addressed the statue inscription and potential artist. Both recommendations come from the work of The Vel Phillips Statue Taskforce. That’s a separate group of community leaders supporting the statue. David Endres chairs that task force, and he says all of Phillips’s life accomplishments couldn’t fit on a single plaque. “The difficulty with Vel, ofcourse, is that she has so many firsts,” he explains. “If were to attempt to list all the firsts and all the accomplishments she had we would need more than the plaque space would allow.”
The inscription will be written by Phillips’s son, Michael Phillips. He hopes that the sculpture encourages people for hundreds of years to research his mother’s life and legacy.
The second recommendation coming from the task force is who will make the statue. At the top of the list is Atlanta-based artist Radcliffe Bailey. Bailey has experience with many mediums, and largely works in found objects. One of his works can be found in Milwaukee, outside the BMO Tower. The bronze statue, “Pensive,” depicts W. E. B. Du Bois a the pose of Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker.”
Marilu Knode is one of the experts who recommends Bailey. She points to “Pensive” as reference to what Bailey may accomplish with the Vel Phillips statue. “Radcliffe Bailey is a black artist hacking into western art history and hacking it for a new community.”
A fundraiser for the statue surpassed its goal by 30 thousand dollars. Boys and Girls Club of Dane County CEO Michael Johnson told WORT in February that any excess funds will go towards educational scholarships in Vel Phillips’s name.
The full State Capitol and Executive Residence Board will meet in the fall and take up these recommendations. If approved, the subcommittee and task force will move forward on commissioning the art.
Image used with permission from Wisconsin Historical Society, WHI-28115