The newest addition to the Rutland Sculpture Trail will be, like its subject, the first of its kind.
Martin Henry Freeman, a Rutland native who became the first African-American president of an American college, the Allegheny Institute, will be the next portrait sculpture in a series that has depicted a scene from “The Jungle Book,” Olympic champion skier Andrea Mead Lawrence headed down a mountain and members of a black Civil War regiment in battle.
The Freeman piece, which is being sculpted now at West Rutland’s Carving Studio & Sculpture Center, was designed by Mark Burnett, of Leominster, Massachusetts.
Burnett has taken classes at the Carving Studio and provided some photographs of family members who were members of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment that were used to create the piece that is near the corner of Center Street and Merchants Row.
“It was important for me because I can’t imagine in that time, in that period, what that person must have had to deal with to overcome, to achieve what he had to, just to have educated himself to that level,” said Burnett, who is black.
Freeman was born in 1826. He was the salutatorian of his class at Middlebury College when he graduated in 1849. After leading Allegheny, in Pittsburgh, Freeman moved to Africa and served as president of Liberia College until he died in 1889.
Burnett, who worked from the only available photo of Freeman to create the design for the sculpture, said the experience made him feel closer to his subject.
“I sometimes find myself talking to my model or asking permission if I can try something, trying to really, really connect,” he said.
Steve Costello, who originated the local sculpture trail and led the effort to create individual pieces, said the committee working on the pieces chose Burnett because of the samples of his work and the proposal he submitted.
“I think it was really wonderful that we found Mark, frankly. In talking with him and reading his proposal, (it was) really clear that he felt really close to the subject matter, and that he would really put himself into the work in a really deep and meaningful way. His skills are really what won the commission,” Costello said.
Burnett said the Freeman design is the biggest, but not the first, work of his sculpting career.
Tracing his involvement in the arts back to grade school, Burnett said his family has a number of artists but no other sculptors.
But, while the Freeman piece will have a high profile, sculpting is not Burnett’s primary occupation. Burnett, 53, is a lieutenant in the Leominster Fire Department, where he’s served for 33 years.
“There are a lot of artists in the fire department,” he said.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Don Ramey, who has been involved in the Carving Studio, “from the very beginning,” was working on the full-sized sculpture based on Burnett’s design.
Ramey also sculpted the piece based on the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, which he said connected with his support and “special feeling” for veterans.
Ramey also connected with Burnett because Burnett provided artistic material for the 54th Regiment piece.
“When Mark got the job to do the (Freeman) portrait, I was happy to be able to work with him to do the job,” he said.
Costello said the site was still being chosen for the Freeman piece.