There is a new public art sculpture on campus and it’s impossible to miss. Located beside Kenyon’s American flag and across from the Black Student Union’s lounge, the placement of this sculpture, titled Light of Freedom, encourages viewers to consider how this light is cast over America. But its placement outside Peirce Dining Hall serves an additional purpose, artist Abigail DeVille explained: “It’s where you get food. Everybody’s going to see it. Multiple times a day… And at night it’s lit up. If you don’t want to look at it, it’s still going to be there. It’s still something you have to encounter everyday.”
These encounters, and the conversations that follow, are what DeVille looks forward to while her large installation piece makes Kenyon College its home until June 2024. She took an active part in encouraging these conversations on campus, taking the time to meet with a variety of Kenyon students and organizations. DeVille also introduced her work to the wider Mount Vernon community with The Annex’s screening of two short films discussing the sculpture and participated in a talk moderated by Assistant Professor of American Studies and History Francis Gourrier.
While Light of Freedom has previously been displayed at Crystal Bridges’ The Momentary (Ark.) and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Washington, D.C.), it was first commissioned for Madison Square Park in New York in 2020, as the COVID-19 lockdown brought more people to the park. DeVille explained her purpose for the sculpture: “I was really excited to be able to direct some energy and attention, and also thinking about honoring the protests that were going on and honoring a longer Black history in the city of New York itself.”
Her creative process began with research. “I feel like I have to fill up on all this information,” DeVille said. She described the steps she took before beginning the physical creation of her work: As she researched the history of Madison Square Park, she discovered that the hand and torch of the Statue of Liberty were displayed in the park from 1876 to 1882 to raise money for the pedestal. “This is the project,” she said. “There’s nothing else to look for here. History’s already done it for me.”
The sculpture itself consists of a torch suspended within scaffolding. “I like scaffolding a lot. I think it’s so sexy,” DeVille said. However, the scaffolding is also a reminder that freedom is constantly under construction. Blue fiberglass mannequin limbs extend out as the torch’s flames. “I was thinking about people power,” she said. “The only way that these kinds of things endure is the belief that it is possible to have something that is better than what was, and so that is the only thing that’s really fueling this ideology or the idea that freedom actually could exist. And it’s been historically fought from the margins.”
Her choice of the color blue has as many interpretations as the torch has limbs. Not only is the hottest part of a flame blue, but the color is also reminiscent of waterborne passages, specifically the Middle Passage of the Atlantic Slave Trade. However, DeVille expanded this into a physical manifestation of abstract themes.“Blue is this thing that is beyond our reach. It’s the color of the horizon. It’s the color of our dreams. And that’s part of it,” she explained.
An old school bell from Illinois, which DeVille bought off eBay, hangs within the body of the torch and carries its own variety of associations: education, the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and a gathering bell uniting people together. Describing her ultimate goal, DeVille says: “It’s a symbol of America. It can go anywhere and it can have conversations with as many different communities as possible.”