New Bronze Statue of Catherine Spalding Honors Louisville Icon

She cared for the sick, the homeless and the uneducated. And she walked most everywhere. So it makes sense that Mother Catherine Spalding, a Louisville icon, is now forever walking down Fifth Street with a child on both sides.

The real Catherine Spalding, who founded an orphanage, several schools and a new order of nuns, died in 1858 of pneumonia. But a bronze statue of her, located on the sidewalk outside the Cathedral of the Assumption, now preserves her memory. Forged by renowned Louisville sculptor Raymond Graf, the new statue is the first public work of art in Louisville to portray a woman from history.

Graf, who is famous for the statue of James Graham Brown and his dog, which ornaments the outside of the Brown Hotel, constructed the new Spalding statue with no pedestal, so that, from a distance, Mother Catherine might seem to be just another pedestrian walking down the sidewalk.

As is true of Graf’s other work, the attention to detail is exacting, down to the beads on Spalding’s rosary, the buttons on her cape, and the folds in her bonnet.

In her left arm, she is carrying an energetic boy who is pointing at the church steeple. On her right side, a very determined little girl keeps a tight hold on Spalding’s dress.

Graf says he wanted to create a contrast between the boy’s cheerful naiveté and the girl’s frightened determination.

“She’s old enough to know. He isn’t,” says Graf.

The children in the statue represent the real life orphans that Spalding routinely rescued from abandonment and starvation during the cholera epidemic. She herself was an abandoned child, which made her all the more compassionate toward children who suddenly found themselves without a family.

In an 1839 letter, Spalding wrote, “ … in the whole universe there is not a spot to which my heart clings but to that” about St. Vincent Orphanage, which she founded.

The Cathedral of the Assumption commissioned the statue. Four artists competed for the job, and each of them received a book about Spalding’s life to jumpstart their inspiration. Graff’s original small-scale model took its cue from a description of Spalding that had her walking down the street in the company of three children. That first model included a baby positioned in Spalding’s apron.

“As we progressed along, we realized the baby was a little in the way and too much,” Graf says.

Graf says the Spalding statue is his “most involved” piece and that it afforded him “the opportunity to explore more story telling.”

Bronze, he explains, was the only possible material for this work: “Marble is really delicate. Things get knocked off right away.” And bronze is the only extremely durable material that lends itself to the kind of detail that characterizes Graf’s work.

Some people might wonder why Louisville’s first statue of a famous Kentucky woman would be Catherine Spalding. The answer lies in her sweeping accomplishments in both the spiritual and secular worlds. Spalding was, in a number of ways, the mother of social services. She believed in education and healthcare, not just for the affluent, but for everyone. She believed that children should be protected from misfortune. Presentation Academy, which she founded in 1831, is still going strong today and is the oldest school in Louisville in continuous existence.

And she was good at bringing people together for a cause. Susan Gatz, the President of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, says that one fundraising fair that Spalding organized raised $1400 for her orphanage. In her day, that was a fortune.

Before all that, she became the founding leader of a new order of nuns at the tender age of nineteen. She was elected to lead the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth when it had exactly six members. Today, that order is international, and its sisters live and work in the United States, Belize, Botswana, India and Nepal.

Gatz, who more than two hundred years later occupies the same position of leadership within her order, says Spalding herself would be delighted with the new statue—if only because it brought so many people together to accomplish something.

“She took up the issues where people were needy, and addressed them in very concrete ways,” says Gatz. “She invited other people to be aware of them and to be a part of making the situation better.”

Fabulous Freebie: A Walking Tour of Louisville’s Outdoor Sculpture

Movies are expensive, restaurants are expensive, even books are expensive, but one thing is still free: Feasting your eyes on Louisville’s often quirky, sometimes momentous and always thought-provoking public art.

This walking tour starts at 300 East Main where one of the city’s whimsical bike racks perfectly combines art with function. This one looks remotely like a chorus line of stick figures. Like the other bike racks on this tour, it was commissioned by the Louisville Downtown Management District. They are all titled “Bike Rack,” but they were executed by a number of different artists. One popular bike rack, at Main and Fifth, looks like giant seed pods. Another, also on Main, looks like a stick man.

Going West on Main Street soon takes you to “Bench” on the 100 block East in front of the parking garage. Also commissioned by the LDMD, “Bench” is not only art. It’s also a place to rest your tired bones on this tour.

Continue West down Main Street past the Yum! Center. In front of the Waterfront Plaza Office Towers is another “Bike Rack,” this one taking the form of an abstract red horse with very long legs. It’s not certain whether your bike is tethered to the horse or the horse is tethered to your bike.

On the 600 block of West Main is a delightful bronze work of a man seated on a bench. As of this writing, it has no plaque, but it represents Charles Rowland Peaslee Farnsley who was a Kentucky State Representative in the mid 1960s and served as Louisville’s mayor from 1948-53. Many considered him eccentric, but that did not stop him from expanding the city’s library and park systems and developing recreational facilities for children.

Of course, no Louisville sculpture walking tour would be complete if you did not pause to consider the giant replica of Michelangelo’s David, painted in bright gold. Is it art, is it décor or is it junk? How you answer that question says everything about you. In any event, it is probably the most recognizable work of art in Louisville. Just past that, and across the street in front of the Kentucky Science Center is the abstract work titled “Breakfast with Tesla and Enola Gay.” It’s a hodgepodge of shapes, like a pendulum, that look vaguely scientific. Enola Gay was, of course, the first plane to drop an atom bomb, and Tesla was the father of electricity (from whom Edison plagiarized), so the sculpture playfully represents the best and worst that science has achieved.

Backtrack down Main Street to Fifth and hang a right. At Jefferson, swing right and take in the monument to Medal of Honor recipients, honored here with the figure of a rough-clad soldier running, rifle in hand. Just a little further down sits Thomas Jefferson.

Now, get back on Fifth Street and go down to the Cathedral of the Assumption where you get to see the new Catherine Spalding statue. While you’re there, take a moment to consider the older sculpture titled “Creation,” also just outside the church. It appears as if Adam and Eve are born kissing each other. Kind of a surprising notion to find outside a Catholic Church.

If you are now both fatigued and hungry or you just need a break and a beverage, you can drop in to Manhattan Grill on the corner of Fifth and Muhammad Ali. It opens for breakfast at 7 a.m. and stays open until 5:30 p.m.

Continue south on Fifth and make a right on Broadway to see the relief titled “Early Kentucky Settlers” above the main door to the Louisville Courier-Journal. It’s an intriguing and idealistic work. The early settlers are portrayed as living harmoniously with bears and wolves. It’s not clear whether the raccoons, who feature prominently, are also early settlers or just varmints.

Back track down Broadway and, as you approach the Brown Hotel, take a quick detour left on Fourth Street or you will miss the bronze statue of James Graham Brown loitering on the sidewalk with his little dog.

That’s about a two-mile walk. If you are not yet exhausted, you can continue East on Broadway a few more blocks and make a right turn on Floyd. In two and a half blocks, you will come to the WAVE 3 complex, and on that block is an impressive stone statue titled “Communications.”

These are by no means the only sculptures in Louisville worth seeing, just some that you can see on an easy two and a half mile walk. Hope you left a second car at the other end!


The Future of Public Art in Louisville

Gretchen Milliken, Director of Advanced Planning in the city’s Louisville Forward program, speaks highly of the new Catherine Spalding statue, but she emphasizes that the city did not commission it.

“While we think it is a milestone and it’s wonderful, we’re not specifically focusing on getting more representative women … we’re trying to be a progressive art program.”

Milliken believes that we’re past having to make sure that women are represented in public art. And the city’s public art mission is to plan art right into the initial design of new corridors and developments. She emphasizes that public art does not need to be figurative, i.e. easily recognizable. “It can be represented in a lot of different ways. It might not even be permanent. We’re looking at art in a whole different way,” she says.

Asked for a list of most important pieces of public art in Louisville, Milliken identified these:

Opening August 28, “Connect/Disconnect,” a public art project comprised of several temporary art installations along the Louisville Loop and the River

“York” by Ed Hamilton located at Belvedere, Waterfront Park

“George Rogers Clark” by Felix de Weldon located at Belvedere, Waterfront Park

George Grey Barnard’s “Abraham Lincoln” at the Main Library, facing 4th Street

“Thomas Jefferson” by Ezekiel Moses in front of Metro Hall

“Louis XVI” by Achille Joseph Etienne  Valois

“Flock of Finns” in the style of Marvin Finn at the Waterfront Park

Lincoln Memorial by Ed Hamilton, Big 4 Bridge

“Tetra” by Charles Perry, Big 4 Bridge

“Red Feather” by Alexander Calder, “Gracehoper” by Tony Smith, and works by Jean Dubuffet, Louise Nevelson, John Chamberlain and Joan Miro at the Kentucky Center for the Arts

Riverview Park structures by deLeon and Primmer, the Southwest Public Library exterior and interior features floor murals in the Kentucky International Convention Center by Mags Harries and Lajos Heder.