The mother, with her dress drenched with water and clinging to her skin, holds a baby to her chest as another child wraps its arms around her waist, face buried in her lap. With a look of concern mixed with determination on her face, the woman carries these children across a landscape of rubble and broken stones as a disembodied hand reaches up from the ruin.
This is the sculpture that Doug McLean became obsessed with. The Galveston-based artist first learned of the sculpture, originally titled Victims of the Galveston Flood, from a neighbor more than a decade ago. Since then he's made it his mission to recreate the lost artwork, with the eventual goal of having it installed in Galveston's new city park behind City Hall.
The sculpture has a long and mysterious history, going back to 120 years ago when the Great Hurricane of 1900 destroyed Galveston. While hurricanes were not named back then, the 1900 storm, which made landfall September 8 on the island, is still considered the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history. Four years after the storm, as the island rebuilt, an Italian sculptor, Pompeo Coppini, was commissioned by the city to create an artwork to commemorate the event.
Coppini, who lived in San Antonio after immigrating to the U.S., is known for a number of sculptures commemorating Texas history, including the Alamo Cenotaph monument and the statue of Texas Governor Sul Ross that stands on the Texas A&M campus. But when he completed the plaster mockup of the Galveston statue, city leaders rejected it, apparently feeling it was too dark to be installed so soon after the storm.
From there the statue had a curious journey. In 1906 it was sent to the St. Louis World's Fair, where it was meant to be the centerpiece in the sculpture pavilion. Somehow it was mislabeled, and ended up on display in the Texas Pavilion instead, where—at 11 feet high—it barely fit in the exhibition hall. Then it was sent back to Texas and put into storage. Nobody knows what happened to it after that, though several of Coppini's other works are believed to have been destroyed in a fire. For now the statue is considered lost; the only evidence we have that it even existed is two grainy photographs.
After hearing about the lost Galveston statue in 2006, McLean carried the piece in the back of his mind, considering how he might create his own interpretation of the artwork, he tells Houstonia. Finally, in 2017, McLean decided to begin a study of the woman's face, working solely from the two century-old photographs of the work. "There's amazing power in this woman's face,” he says. “I just couldn't get it out of my head.”
Galveston, McLean notes, has always had a history of really strong women, including nurse Clara Barton, who at age 78 brought the Red Cross to Galveston following the 1900 storm, and island matriarchs like Lyda Ann Thomas, who helped the city rebuild after Hurricane Ike. "All these different things built around my obsession with this statue,” says the sculptor, who’s made his own mark on the island by repairing ironworks on many of its historical buildings (he was also the chief blacksmith on the restoration of the 1877 Tall Ship Elissa).
McLean eventually decided to remake the entire sculpture, and, for the past three years, he’s been toiling away at his version of Victims, which he calls Hope, on evenings and weekends between other work. Instead of the mournful tone of the sculpture's original design, McLean hopes to honor the history of Galveston while also looking to the island's future in his rendition. The children, along with the woman's determined, forward-moving posture, are meant to represent possibility, he says. The artist estimates he's spent about 1,600 hours on the sculpture so far. "Believe me," he admits, "I thought I was nuts about halfway through."
But the hard work has paid off—city leaders have accepted the statue more than 100 years after they initially rejected it. When finished, Hope will be cast in bronze (McLean is paying for the casting himself, with the help of donations) and installed in the new city park next to Galveston City Hall, thus bringing the saga of the mysterious Coppini sculpture to a satisfying end. Better late than never, right?
Learn more about the Hope sculpture and how you can get involved here.