NOTE: This piece was originally released for publication in July 2016. You can also read it here.
RICHMOND, Va. — On Monument Avenue, amongst statues of long-dead Civil War generals, one piece stands out: a bronze sculpture of famed tennis player and Richmond native Arthur Ashe, Jr. The statue was unveiled 20 years ago, on July 10, 1996, which would have been Ashe’s 53rd birthday.
Sculptor Paul DiPasquale had just begun the process of creating the piece when Ashe passed away of AIDS-related pneumonia in February 1993.
“When he passed, it was a Saturday night,” said DiPasquale. “I had been trying to call him on Friday, to set up a time to meet him in New York, and couldn’t get through. Sunday morning the headlines were ‘Arthur Ashe dies.'”
Ashe laid in state at the governor’s mansion, thanks to his friend and then-governor, Douglas Wilder. Then Ashe’s funeral was held at the Arthur Ashe Athletic Center in Richmond, attended by over 6,000 mourners.
DiPasquale came home from the funeral to find a package addressed to him, from A. Ashe in New York.
“I opened it up and there were photographs of him, and a little note,” DiPasquale said. “The note read, ‘Hey Paul, I wanted you to have these. Let’s talk soon – A. Ashe.’ So, I waited two weeks, and I wrote his wife, and said ‘I got this package’. And she said, “I know, I’m the one who mailed you those pictures. That was the last thing he did, was leave those photos and that note on his desk. I mailed them Monday morning.’ So, I felt I had to continue that project. And so did she.”
DiPasquale was first inspired to create a statue of Ashe when he returned to Virginia to oversee the moving of his popular sculpture, Connecticut, which depicts a Native American man climbing over a building.
“The Indian, because it was put on display at The Diamond, right next to the Arthur Ashe Center — it was another part of that confluence that brought me to the sculpture,” DiPasquale said. “Then I met him at a tennis clinic for kids in Richmond, and that was when I really started thinking, this is an internationally loved man. He is a product of Virginia education, and of Richmond schools, and a hero who has used his success as an athlete as a bully pulpit for social concerns.”
“And what was clear to me at this clinic was there weren’t any other people there — just the kids at the clinic, kids from education centers in the area. But that’s where I first heard him speak. That’s where I first understood he was not just a world famous tennis player, but a statesman and a political activist.”
DiPasquale got Ashe’s address from the head of Richmond Renaissance, Clarence Townes, for whom he had just finished his The Headman sculpture, which is displayed on Brown’s Island.
“He said, what are you working on next?” said DiPasquale. “I said, I’m working on a statue of Arthur Ashe. He slapped the table and said, ‘How can I help you do that?’ And I said, well, I need his address.”
DiPasquale wrote Ashe a letter pitching the idea of the sculpture, saying that he would like to finish an authorized and approved statue of Ashe that would then be bronzed. He mentioned that Ashe may have seen his work at The Diamond.
“That’s why he called me, he said he liked my work and believed I could do it,” said DiPasquale. “And the city supported it, because they wanted a statue in the Black Sports Hall of Fame, which Mr. Ashe had been in talks to become a chairman of. All of these things just seemed to come together… and then he died.”
When he told DiPasquale to go ahead with the project, Ashe already knew that he was dying due to AIDS, which he had contracted from a blood transfusion. He told DiPasquale that he had thought about how he would like to be memorialized, and gave him a list of specifications.
Ashe wanted to be represented in his current emaciated frame, which was 128 pounds at 6’1 tall. He also specified that he wanted children to be involved, and did not want to be the center of attention. He wanted to be in his warm-up suit and tennis shoes, and that it was important that books somehow be included in the sculpture, to emphasize literature as a source of power.
“The last thing he said was, ‘Well, I suppose there should be a tennis racket in there someplace,’” said DiPasquale.
DiPasquale continued to work on the piece with input from widow Jeanne Ashe, receiving photographs of her husband and feedback on the piece when she came down to look at his progress.
“As I worked on the statue, on the walls 360 degrees around the piece, I had photos and sketches of him for reference,” said DiPasquale. “It looked like a shrine to him. So it was very emotional for the family to come in, and see so much of his face in the studio, and then moreso when the sculpture began to take shape and resemble him.”
After Ashe’s death, a Richmond committee was formed to honor his memory. They had planned to rename North Boulevard to Arthur Ashe Boulevard, but then they got word that DiPasquale was working on a statue of Ashe. The idea was immediately popular.
The committee brought the idea of the memorial statue to the Richmond City Council. Virginia Heroes, a mentoring program which Ashe had founded, offered to fund the statue so it could be officially presented to the councilmen. When DiPasquale unveiled the twelve-foot plaster version of the statue for Virginia Heroes to see, he says their chairman Governor Wilder immediately stood, and said, “This statue needs to go on Monument Avenue.”
“When they suggested placing him on Monument Avenue, I thought that was a bad idea, because I thought we would lose,” DiPasquale said. “I thought that idea would lose, and it would not honor him to go through a difficult process only to be told no, enough so had he been alive — and even worse, considering he was dead.”
The question of whether or not the statue belonged on Monument Avenue was hotly controversial.
Some detractors claimed that Ashe hadn’t done enough to warrant being memorialized on the historic avenue, while others said they didn’t want to see a black man memorialized on the same street as slave-owners.
The New York Times referred to the issue in a 1995 article as causing “race-tinged furor”, and reported, “City Hall fielded more than 400 telephone calls over the issue in five days, 90 percent of them opposing the designated location of the statue.”
Despite fears that it would be voted down, the statue was voted to go on Monument Avenue near-unanimously, with only the councilman from the district encompassing Monument Avenue abstaining from the vote.
“The debate changed to ‘Why shouldn’t Arthur Ashe go on Monument Avenue?’ In other words, is he or is he not a hero? Is Monument Avenue an avenue for heroes, currently? Or just generals and admirals of the Civil War? And clearly the answer is that Monument Avenue is a living avenue for heroes,” said DiPasquale. “I’ll still meet people who will say, Well, he was just a tennis player, Monument Avenue is a place for monumental people. And it gives me a chance to educate people on Ashe, and what he contributed to the world, beyond tennis.”
One comment DiPasquale often still gets is that people think the statue looks like Ashe is threatening the children below him with his tennis racket.
“I think art is what you bring to it. But I will say that if I had wanted to make it look like he was hitting kids with a tennis racket, I would have done a better job,” he said, laughing.