Born in 1943, Frederick E. Hart grew up in Horry County, South Carolina. He was an avid reader, but a troubled student. As a teenager, he quarreled with his parents, who did not approve of his grand artistic ambitions. Teachers were worried Hart would fail out of high school. The principal was almost certain that he would. However, Hart's standardized test scores stunned them all. On the ACT, Hart scored 35 out of 36. He had outperformed almost all of his peers, and on the basis of his ACT results, Hart was granted early admission to the University of South Carolina.
At the same time, the campaign to desegregate South Carolinaʼs school system began. In 1961, African-American students led over two hundred in a protest march against racial segregation. Hart was the one and only white student to join them. "I happened to know some of the demonstrators," Hart said. "I went over and started talking to them." When policemen threatened to arrest him, Hart joined the demonstration.
For standing up to the police, joining African-American students in a march for civil rights, and demanding equal access to education for all, Hart was thrown in jail, expelled from the University of South Carolina, and then chased out of town by the Ku Klux Klan.
Hart landed in Washington, D.C., and found work first as an ornamental sculptor, and then as an apprentice stone carver at Washington National Cathedral. This was where Hart honed his craft, studying the techniques of his mentors, the Cathedral's master carvers. A tight-knit crew of first-generation immigrants, many of them had served their own apprenticeships chiseling national monuments.
In 1974, Hart won an international competition to design the west facade of Washington National Cathedral. Ten years later, Hart attended the dedication ceremony for what would become one of his most famous works, a bronze sculpture of three servicemen, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. -- the first representation of an African-American on the National Mall.
"The veterans who served in Vietnam were as diverse as the nation they represented. This statue is a symbol of their courage and devotion to their country." – Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund
In 1993, Hart received an honorary degree of Doctor of Fine Arts from the University of South Carolina for his "ability to create art that uplifts the human spirit." The next year, Hart unveiled his portrait of Jimmy Carter outside the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta. In 1997, he presented his spectacular acrylic sculpture, The Cross of the Millennium, to Pope John Paul II, who told the sculptor: "You have created a profound theological statement for our day."
In 2005, the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia, acquired Hart's sculpture, Songs of Grace. A pioneering work of art in clear acrylic resin, it represents what bestselling author Tom Wolfe described as Hart's "devotion to craft," and the "emotional, intellectual, and spiritual force" of his work. Mikhail Piotrovsky, Director of the Hermitage Museum, called Hart "a great sculptor, an American known all over the world."
In addition to the public monuments he created in Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, Georgia, many of the sculptures Hart produced for private collectors, like Songs of Grace, are now on public display. They can be seen throughout the United States, from Brookgreen Gardens near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Oakland, California.
Though he died in 1999, Hart would be glad to see his life's work proliferating across the globe, to see his sculptures displayed in public parks and museums where anyone can enjoy them. As he said, "Art must be a part of life. It must exist in the domain of the common man. It must be an enriching, ennobling, and vital partner... It should be a majestic presence in everyday life."
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