Wall Street's `Fearless Girl' speaks, via sculptor Kristen Visbal

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Kristen Visbal, sculptor of "Fearless Girl," will speak Thursday May 18 at a Girls Inc. luncheon at the DuPont Country Club in Wilmington, Del.

Kristen Visbal finished the work in weeks, never expecting that a sculpture that began as advertising would become globally admired art and a symbol of women's leadership in the financial world.

Visbal's Fearless Girl is a 4-foot bronze statue of a young girl with a look of resolve as she faces Wall Street's famous Charging Bull. She holds her head high, her hands firmly planted at her waist. A plaque, later removed, at her feet stated: "Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference."

Appropriately, Visbal speaks for the first time locally since her statue was unveiled on Thursday, May 18, at the DuPont Country Club in Wilmington at the Strong, Smart & Bold Awards Luncheon, a fund-raiser for Girls Inc. of Delaware. (Tickets and other information at girlsincde.org or by calling 302-575-1041). 

Visbal moved to Lewes, Del., in 1988 from her home state of Maryland. After attending the University of Arizona and pursuing a career in sales, she returned to earn an art degree from Salisbury State University, then apprenticed at Johnson Atelier Art Foundry in Mercerville, N.J., to study "lost wax bronze casting." Her work has been featured at Hershey Gardens, Lincoln Center, Colonial Williamsburg, and Merrill Lynch.

In an interview, Visbal addressed the controversy about, and the adoration of, Fearless Girl.

Question: How are you doing with all this attention? And why are you speaking out now?

Answer: This event [at Girls Inc. of Delaware] is exactly up my alley. My message is going to be short, but I’m really happy to speak to these young girls. As for me, I’m overwhelmed. I’m great, but because I work by myself and have done so for 19 years, I have found it to be overwhelming. I’d like to get back to business as usual!  I had no idea how big Fearless Girl was going to be. [In regards to the installation], people either love it or hate it.

Q: Tell us about how it all came together. What were you doing before you got this commission from McCann advertising agency on behalf of State Street? Investment firm State Street Global Advisors commissioned the sculpture to highlight efforts to get more women on corporate boards.

A: I was working on another commission, an Alexander Hamilton monument at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London [Conn.], and we were having some delays coming to an agreement on the design. And during that time, I received a phone call from a friend at a foundry. A client was looking for a female artist to create a sculpture of a little girl, a 36-inch child with her fists on her hips. That was in November 2016, and by December I had submitted a few sketches depicting three different sizes. Ultimately, we made her bigger, at 48 inches tall, because we wanted a figure that would go with Charging Bull [the massive bull bronze by Arturo Di Modica] that was streamlined and simplified. I used two little girls as models, the body was modeled after the first, but we wanted her to be universally appealing. A child who would represent all children.  The first little girl’s name was Ellie, and the second was Leila. They are the models. I used the first girl's face as a reference for the head.  Many of the distinguishing features were removed and I used a generous amount of ad libbing on the face, specifically so it would not be a portrait.

I finished the clay model in three weeks, on Jan. 21, the same day as the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. A mold-maker made the mold and cast the wax, and that was approved Jan. 30. I delivered that to the foundry [in Baltimore] Jan. 31, and I approved the final metal on Feb. 28. That’s incredibly fast. Usually, the casting process alone takes four to six months.

I aimed for the same patina as Charging Bull, although it’s a different metal mix. We worked all night and finally installed Fearless Girl at 5:30 a.m.

Q: Di Modica sparked a furor when he complained about the positioning of Fearless Girl in front of his famous Charging Bull in Manhattan. Tell us about the controversy.

A: He’s upset, even though he also placed his sculpture on the streets in the middle of the night! We’ve placed Fearless Girl at a very respectful distance to Charging Bull. The intent of our message was the inclusion of women in finance, and that women are on an equal footing in business today; the statement is not only that women are important in business today but are an integral part of tomorrow. Hence the use of a child.

Q: The placement also brought to light the discrepancy of pay between men and women, as well as representation on corporate boards.

A: State Street’s call with Fearless Girl was they want more women on boards, and businesses need to include women in leadership. Di Modica says the placement of Fearless Girl changes the message, but I disagree. The bull stands for the bull market, the strength of the American business community. But women need to be part of that. That’s why there is such great emphasis on not making her features belligerent or confrontational. She’s strong and standing her ground.

Q: How long will Fearless Girl remain?

A: I firmly believe Fearless Girl should stay exactly where she is until we see some of these issues resolved. When you place a work publicly, you relinquish your control over the work. Mr. Di Modica gifted his work to the American public, and we too have gifted Fearless Girl to the city of New York. We want her to stand for very specific goals: gender diversity in leadership and the empowerment of young women so they can grow into leaders. And I’m not talking about figureheads. Employers need to look for the best person for the job – not just a woman for the job.

Q: Tell us about your family and how they encouraged you.

A: My mother was an artist, a painter, and my father worked in the American foreign service and then the InterAmerican Development Bank in Washington. She would have loved Fearless Girl. And I feel her in my life today. I remember sitting on my dad’s lap at 5 years old. He said, "You can do anything and be anything." I never felt limited. My parents focused equally on the education of both their sons and daughters. If my parents hadn’t expressed their faith in me, I never would have felt like taking on that challenge of becoming an artist and making a living.

Q: What will you be saying at the May 18 event?

A: I’ll make a short speech, but I want them mostly to make the power pose. Lift your chin and feel strong. The message is collaboration between men and women and an unbiased approach to hiring.