Ellen McGowan, sculptor of Alex Haley’s childhood
I was surprised to learn that Alex Haley’s childhood memories had been immortalized in sculptures. I “discovered” them last summer while visiting the home of a friend’s sister who owned several figurines depicting his growing-up years in Henning, TN.
Most had been made by a sculptor named Ellen McGowan, whose name was unfamiliar to me. I wrote a blog post about the pieces and what little I could learn about McGowan and her experiences with Haley, who in the 1970s gave us “Roots” – the story of his family’s history in Africa and America that paralleled the lives of other African Americans.
Recently, I got an email from McGowan after she came across that blog post:
“It was such a great privilege to get to meet Alex Haley and to go with him to his grandmother’s house in Henning and listen to the stories about his childhood,” she wrote, “and then to sculpt small pieces that depicted those stories! It’s hard to believe that we did those Haley pieces so long ago! And I can hardly believe I am now 88!!”
I instantly knew that I wanted to know more about her and her time with Haley. So I asked her to do a Q&A with me and she was nice enough to oblige.
The collection was a series of figurines that McGowan and several other artists created about the author’s childhood. Up until he was 5 years old, Haley lived in Henning with his mother Bertha and her parents Will and Cynthia Palmer while his father was a graduate student at Cornell University in New York. His father Simon joined them after graduating with a degree in agriculture.
McGowan creates both miniatures – as in the Haley series – as well as life-size figures in mediums from bronze to concrete to fired clay, according to her website. She has done private sculptures for such people as golfer Lee Trevino and actress Bette Midler, and public works for the Alex Haley Museum in Henning, among others.
She is now working on a large sculpture for the Salvation Army Kroc Center in Memphis. “I am very lucky to still be working,” she said.
McGowan said she got a note from Haley “saying how much he liked my figurines.” She added: “They (the figurines) weren’t as successful as they had hoped … but I was extremely fortunate to get to be a part of it!” Haley died in 1992.
How did you come to work with Alex Haley on the figurines? Were you told specifically to make figurines from his childhood?
The idea came from Beverly and Jim Rhyne – who lived in New Tazewell, TN – in 1990 or 1989 (Both had moved from north Georgia where they had published collectibles magazines, she said). When my husband retired from teaching botany at the University of Memphis, we moved to 100 acres in Middle Tennessee near Linden. I don’t know how they heard of me – maybe from the gallery where I sold my pieces in Nashville, Katzman Werthan Gallery, or TACA (Tennessee Association of Craft Artists). They called me and asked if I would make figurines from Mr. Haley’s childhood.
Did you have any connection to him before this project?
I had never met him before. They arranged for me to go to Henning to meet with him and his childhood best friend (Fred Montgomery), who was the mayor of Henning at the time. We met with them three times in his grandparents’ home. We recorded many childhood stories. (It) was a lovely time. The tapes are now in Christian Brothers University in Memphis as part of a permanent collection the university has of my work (the Ellen Fossey McGowan Collection also contains the note from Haley).
Do you remember some of the stories he told that inspired you to make certain figurines? What stories left a lasting impression on you?
The stories all made a lasting impression on me. He was such a genuine man and the stories showed much love and respect for his grandparents – and also (he had) a wonderful sense of humor. I just took the stories and tried to tell them in figurines instead of words. I made them in clay and fired them. They came and got them and cast them in resin. It’s been so long ago, I really can’t remember how many I made.
A lot of them were scenes with his grandparents. One that was particularly poignant was that most African Americans worked in the cotton fields and when someone in their community died, they would all stop and stand respectfully for a moment. My favorite (is) the one where he is saying his prayers as his grandmother looks at him affectionately.
Alex Haley’s favorite was the one of him walking to town with his grandfather and waving to people as they walked. Evidently, his grandfather was a successful business man (He owned the W.E. Palmer Lumber Company in Henning). He was always dressed in a suit and tie.
I did the one where the cotton pickers were standing when the church bells rang. That was one of his stories. Others: His first little girlfriend. The woman who was the town midwife. His grandfather insisted that he read every night, so there is one of him reading. One of him waiting at the door for his grandfather and the one of him praying by his bed while his grandmother watches him. One of his grandmother kissing him good-bye when he goes to school. One of a pretty young girl who was the town flirt. One of him climbing on a cotton bale.
A funny story they told was that they sat on a log outside of a white Methodist church on Sundays listening to them sing, and laughing because they didn’t sing well. When the people came out, they thought the boys were sitting there because they liked the music, and it was a big joke to them.
Do you have any of the Haley figurines? Do you know what happened to the originals?
I have no idea what happened to the originals. I gave my granddaughter about 6 of the finished ones. I have 4 or 5 unpainted ones – and one or two that were painted too dark.
Were you among the millions of people who saw “Roots” in the 1970s? What did you think of it?
I didn’t see the movie, but (I) have the book signed by him.
Tell me a little about yourself.
My father came over from England to go to medical school. My mother was from Humboldt, TN. He roomed with her cousin while in medical school, so he met her when they came to visit. They were divorced when I was four. She was a musician, and after the divorce, (she) went to a conservatory in Chicago (the American Conservatory of Music) to finish her degree and then sang in opera choruses.
We lived in Chicago until I was 14, so I got a chance to take drawing lessons (at the Art Institute of Chicago) – as well, of course, piano. She taught me to read music when I was four (before I could read words!). My grandmother was an amateur painter. Most in (my) family on both sides were artists and musicians.
When I went to college, it was during the Depression and, of course, the only way I could go was with a scholarship – which I got at the conservatory in Chicago – so my undergraduate degree was in music, which I did not want to do. As soon as I could, I went to the University of Memphis and got a master’s in art and studied sculpture at the Memphis College of Art, then studied every summer for two weeks with my favorite sculptor Bruno Lucchesi.