Sculptor and glass artist Barney Zeitz has created art for public spaces all over — from Martha’s Vineyard, where he’s lived for more than 50 years, to a church in Germany where his multi-panel stained glass window honors the church’s historic roots as a former synagogue that was taken over by the Nazis in WWII.
Now Zeitz is returning to his roots with a large outdoor sculpture that he is working on for the base of the Government Center building in Fall River, his childhood hometown.
“I went to public schools there,” recalls Zeitz. “My parents and grandparents are buried there. My uncle owned a shirt factory, where I worked as a kid.”
The theme of the 14-foot by 14-foot stainless steel sculpture is diversity. The pyramid-shaped piece that will jut out from one corner of the building is made up of nine figures and a number of other elements that celebrate Fall River’s history and cultural mix. The men and women who will be looking out from the finished piece at passersby represent a cross section of the population — including Native Americans, immigrants, and Black and brown people. The quote on the base of the sculpture will read, “To the enduring memory of our ancestors: Indigenous Peoples, then Immigrants, the Enslaved, and Refugees. May we, their descendants, together with newcomers, help build a more just and peaceful community.”
It’s an important message for Zeitz, who is Jewish and has championed human rights causes throughout most of his almost 80 years on the planet. He recalls his experience growing up in the Fall River area, saying, “It was very diverse. I had Portuguese friends, Irish, French Canadians, Jews, Lebanese. We mostly got along really well.”
Fall River Government Center sits on a corner at the historic “crossroads” of the city, directly above interstate 195. It was constructed in the 1970s in the Brutalist style, stressing function over form. The sculpture will be the first to adorn the rather institutional-looking building.
The Government Center Cornerstone Project is being funded by the community, the major donors being two banks and a few local businesses. “I want it to be owned by the people,” says Zeitz, who is himself contributing to the expense by donating 30 percent of the profits from the cards and gift items that he sells through his website to the project. Everyone who donates any amount, or who makes a purchase from Zeitz, will have his or her name inscribed on the sculpture’s list of donors. Partway through the process, the artist realized that the piece would benefit from a base, and he is currently helping with the necessary additional fundraising. He is hoping that someone from the Fall River or Vineyard community will step up as a sponsor of the base, and be recognized with a separate inscribed dedication.
With his previous projects, Zeitz employed an assistant. However, this time, not wanting to take any COVID-related risks, he is working alone. He says that he puts about three hours a day into the work. “I started the welding over a year ago,” he says. “I’m having to do everything myself. I’m working as much as I can at my age. It’s really intense.” Zeitz hopes to have the sculpture completed by the summer. He has been invited to display the large-scale piece on the grounds of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum before shipping it off to Fall River for installation.
The piece was originally commissioned by the city three years ago. Zeitz did a lot of research, especially concerning Native American history, before submitting his proposal. He talks a lot about myths and misinformation surrounding the past. He consulted with Wampanoag historian and program director of the Aquinnah Cultural Center Linda Coombs, among others. “I talked to many tribe members here and in Plymouth and the Fall River area,” he says.
The nine figures — both men and women — are variously carrying suitcases, baskets, or other items indicative of their backgrounds. Climbing up the pyramid will be other images symbolic of the city’s history, including churches, boats, domes, and a canoe. So far Zeitz is still working on completing the figures, taking care to give detail and personality to the faces in particular.
“I want anyone who comes to this corner to say, ‘These are my people,’” he says. “Whether you’re Black or Jewish, or whatever your ancestry is, you can look up there and see someone you know. Diversity is a really important issue to me, especially now with what’s going on in this country.”