Friends and icons: New exhibition features Detroit sculptor's works of Rosa Parks

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Detroit sculptor Artis Lane didn't just know civil rights icon Rosa Parks. They were friends.

"She was queenly," said Lane, whose bronze bust of Parks, once in the Smithsonian, was moved in January into President Joe Biden's Oval Office.

Sculptor Artis Lane is featured in a new exhibition at Collected Detroit featuring her work depicting Rosa Parks in Detroit on Friday, September 10, 2021.
Lane was friends with Parks and sculpted a bust of her that now sits in President Joe Biden's Oval Office.

Now, Lane's works of Parks are featured in a new exhibition, "Steps Toward Justice: Artis Lane's Portraits of Rosa Parks" that opens Sept. 11 at Collected Detroit, 2439 Fourth Street in Detroit. It runs through Oct. 23.

The exhibition, which includes a bronze bust very similar to the one in the Oval Office, tells both Parks' story and Lane's through art and history. It includes a few photos of the two friends, a lithograph and another sculpture that Lane created of Parks. It's based on the famous 1956 photo that shows Parks walking up the Montgomery, Alabama, courthouse steps.

Sculptor Artis Lane is featured in a new exhibition at Collected Detroit featuring her work depicting Rosa Parks in Detroit on Friday, September 10, 2021.
Lane was friends with Parks and sculpted a bust of her that now sits in President Joe Biden's Oval Office.

The small bronze sculpture, called "Steps Toward Justice," is set atop a real-life staircase so visitors can experience it from a different perspective. It depicts Parks' hand reaching just above the staircase railing. And that's symbolic, said Lane, 94.

"To stress movement, if you solidify it by putting (the hand) on that (the railing), it loses its movement of going upward," said Lane. "And she was a very devout woman, so it's toward heaven."

Sculptor Artis Lane is featured in a new exhibition "Steps toward Justice" at Collected Detroit featuring her work depicting Rosa Parks in Detroit on Friday, September 10, 2021.

Lane has been a groundbreaker in her own way. Growing up in a small village in Ontario that attracted many free blacks and former slaves, she was drawn to art even as a child. The first Black woman to attend the Cranbrook Academy of Art, Lane moved to Detroit when she married her husband. She eventually moved to California, where she lived for several decades, before moving back to Detroit in late 2019 to be closer to family.

Lane, who also lived in Ann Arbor for a part of her childhood, remembers meeting Parks during a march in Hamtramck. Parks would visit her in California and it was in Lane's backyard that Parks posed for the sculpture now in the Oval Office. She remembers asking Parks to take off her glasses and change the hairdo she usually wore — a bun at the base of her neck.

Sculptor Artis Lane is featured in a new exhibition "Steps toward Justice" at Collected Detroit featuring her work depicting Rosa Parks in Detroit on Friday, September 10, 2021.
Lane was friends with Parks and sculpted a bust of her that now sits in President Joe Biden's Oval Office.

"I said 'Mrs. Parks, I'd love it if you took the braids and wrap them around your head like a crown,'" said Lane. "...Being a British citizen in Canada, I always considered her more queenly than those (real) queens."

Art historian Deborah Lubera Kawsky, who has given lectures on Lane and suggested the idea of an exhibition of her Rosa Parks works after the bust was moved into the Oval Office earlier this year, said Lane's works capture Parks' warmth. 

Sculptor Artis Lane (left) with Rosa Parks with a lithograph of Parks.
Lane was friends with Parks and sculpted a bust of her that now sits in President Joe Biden's Oval Office.

There's a "timeless aspect but also that personal aspect," said Kawsky.

Parks' faith — and her commitment to it — is a theme that emerges throughout Lane's work of her. In a lithograph of the famous photo of her on that Montgomery bus, called "The Beginning," Lane added faint images in the windows, including an American flag, church and school.

Besides being deeply spiritual, Parks was smart, soft spoken and funny, said Lane. She also was unflappable. Lanes remembers being in Washington, D.C., with Parks when someone cursed at Parks, trying to incite her.

Sculptor Artis Lane created the original work for the Rosa Parks medal is featured in a new exhibition at Collected Detroit featuring her work depicting Rosa Parks in Detroit on Friday, September 10, 2021.

"Nothing angered her," said Lane, who also created the sculpture of Sojourner Truth now in the Capitol, the first of a Black woman. "...She knew God would take care of her."

Besides Rosa Parks, the exhibition also features a painting of Lane's great-great-aunt Mary Ann Shadd Cary, an abolitionist, writer, newspaper editor and lawyer.

Artis Lane  is shown working on a sculpture of Rosa Parks.

Lane said she hopes visitors to the exhibition walk away with their own sense of faith, especially amid COVID-19. 

"You're supposed to love your enemies," said Lane. "Can you imagine that? You have no enemy when you love them." 

mfeighan@detroitnews.com

'Steps Toward Justice'

Artist Lane's Portraits of Rosa Parks

at Collected Detroit, 2439 Fourth Street

Opens 6-9 p.m. Sept. 11; runs through Oct. 23

Go to collecteddetroit.com.