Middlebrook welcomes Valley Forge Washington

More than 30 people gathered outside the doors of Middlebrook School’s auditorium on Tuesday, Oct. 13, for the unveiling of the town’s newest municipal statue — Valley Forge Washington, created by longtime Wilton resident Gifford Proctor, who designed the sculpture in Rome in the late 1930s and produced it in Wilton over the course of 30 years.

The 10-foot statue, valued at approximately $25,000, was donated to the town by the Proctor and Keiser families earlier this year. Before moving into its new Middlebrook home, the sculpture had been in a Seeley Road art studio, formerly owned by the Keiser family, where Proctor used to work.

“Today is the culmination of a dream that spans a period of almost 77 years,” First Selectman Bill Brennan said at the Tuesday morning ceremony.

“Gifford Proctor lived and worked in Wilton at various times for over 40 years. His dream and the saga of his dedication to this inspirational sculpture sounds more like fiction than actual fact.”

Brennan said Proctor first created the statue as a “personal response to Hitler and Nazism that was sweeping over Europe.

“He wanted to create an American hero, and George Washington, the father of our country and leader of the Continental Army, was his vision — a resolute figure standing in a cold, terrible storm, his cape flowing in the wind overlooking his troops at Valley Forge,” said Brennan.

The original statue was much smaller than the one standing today, and Proctor had planned to have it enlarged and placed at Valley Forge National Park.

Although World War II interrupted Proctor’s plans, said Brennan, “after the war, his quest resumed and he was able to have his small statue enlarged to a 10-foot sculpture that was eventually brought to Gifford’s studio on Seeley Road.”

Move from Seeley Road


Brennan said Proctor was “a gifted artist” whose “lifetime body of work was amazing.

“Just Google his name and you will see page after page of his many creations. Unfortunately, in 2006, Gifford died at the age of 94 with his unfinished and un-relocated sculpture of Washington still at his Seeley Road studio.”

Brennan said he first laid eyes on Valley Forge Washington while visiting Peter Keiser at the Seeley Road studio in 2011.

“I was mesmerized by this large, dominant figure,” said Brennan. “I thought it was awesome and through Peter and others, was able to piece together the remarkable background of this historic and inspirational work of art.”

When the Keiser property, including the studio, was later sold, Brennan said, “the unfinished sculpture was threatened.” Keiser asked Brennan if the town would be interested in owning the statue, said Brennan, and he “immediately said yes.

“However, owning the statue would create a host of other problems,” said Brennan. “After 30 years at the studio, George was not in good shape. The sculpture was in need of many repairs.”

Not only did the sculpture need to be reinforced, restored and refinished, said Brennan, but it also had to be moved from the studio — all of which required money.

To help fund all this, a “Save George” campaign was launched to raise funds.

“Through the great generosity of many,” Brennan said, “the required funds were raised.”

Perseverance


“In the winter of 1777 and 1778 at Valley Forge,” said Keiser, “when 10,000 men were lost to frostbite, cold, disease,” George Washington not only had to “hold the whole Continental Army together,” but the “future of the United States” as well.

“That’s what he did, and that’s what Gifford felt,” said Keiser. “On many occasions, he expressed that feeling.” The result of that feeling, he said, is Valley Forge Washington.

Superintendent Kevin Smith said he hopes the sculpture will “help make history come alive for our students.

“As Mr. Keiser alluded to, that experience at Valley Forge was a very trying time for Gen. Washington and for the Continental Army,” said Smith.

“They were weary, they were sick, they were hungry, and they didn’t feel much hope — but they persevered.”
With perseverance being “one of our chief American values,” Smith said, “I hope that through the study of this statue and American history, the concept of perseverance embodied in this work and the history it represents comes to life for our students and they continue to carry that forward.”

Curriculum incorporation


Middlebrook Principal Maria Coleman shared some of the curriculum connections teachers are making to the school’s newest addition.

“The Middlebrook community is pleased to have this sculpture in our auditorium lobby — a space that regularly allows us to celebrate the arts in our school,” said Coleman, pointing out the student artwork displayed in the lobby.

Coleman said the school’s art department will use the statue as a subject of its visionary art projects, “allowing students to study shading, light, elements of art and design, and the unique narrative that accompanies each work of art.”

The statue will also be incorporated into the eighth grade history curriculum, said Coleman, and teachers and students will visit the statue to launch their unit on government.

“Teachers will focus on the iconography of George Washington and how it relates to our perception of government,” said Coleman. “They will also highlight the metaphor of the statue, particularly since it arrived in August unfinished. In its unfinished state, the statue symbolized the unfinished nature of democracy and our nation’s ongoing efforts to build a more perfect union.”

Coleman said the music department, “which often uses our auditorium as a teaching space,” is also incorporating “more patriotic music and themes from the time period” into its curriculum this year.

Coleman said Middlebrook is proud to house the work of a local artist in its school.

“People often comment on the beauty of this building and are often surprised to learn that most of the permanent art installations are works created by our own students,” said Coleman.

“We are honored to add the work of a professional artist who lived in Wilton to a collection that showcases the work of budding artists at Middlebrook School.”

Wilton resident Stephen Hudspeth attended the dedication ceremony and said not only is the statue “beautiful” but it works “really well” in the auditorium lobby location.

“For the middle school students who study Washington in some considerable detail, it really is a very appropriate place for it,” said Hudspeth. “This space really works for it. This is, I think, really the perfect location.”