A Mighty Oak for a Steel Magnolia: The Tillie Fowler Memorial

by Madeleine Peck
The other night, while driving towards the Tillie Fowler Memorial just behind the YMCA on the Riverwalk, designer Natalie McCray exclaimed, “It looks like a spaceship for the next Men In Black!”
After we both had a good chuckle, and agreed that yes, a MIB III would be welcome, the idea of memorials reflecting those whom they memorialize came up. As a moderate Republican whose main interests were the military installations in Jacksonville, it might have been more appropriate to sculpt her mounted on a war horse. Then again, that might just be inflammatory.
Whatever the case, Fowler’s memorial is a wrought-in-metal oak tree, executed by artist Brower Hatcher. In his proposal, the artist wrote, “I have designed a work that embodies the strength, beauty and grace of Tillie Fowler. Tillie’s spirit will be captured in the image of a magnificent oak tree – strong, protective of her community, concerned for all and always reaching out.” Sure the prose is slightly purple, but it gets to the heart of the matter, a memorial should evoke feelings and remembrances of the person in whose name it is erected.
Writer Shelton Hull describes Fowler’s politics thusly: “She was what current Governor Crist might call a ‘Florida Republican’ Her politics were rooted more in the best interests of her area than in any ideological dispute. Although she could be labeled a conservative based on her beliefs, her application thereof tended to be honest, practical and moderate–qualities few of her peers of successors could boast of.”
In its finished state, the sculpture feels less like a mighty oak, and more like the architectural distillation and triangulation of the idea of a tree. Of course, located as it is, on the water, unsurrounded by any other wind/weather buffer, some of the decisions might be less about design and more about practicality. But there is no denying the Dr. Who meets Battlestar Galactica vibe it gives off. However, at its core, the idea that Fowler herself was an oak shielding her constituents is poetic and according to Hull, true.
Either way, the greater proliferation of public art in Jacksonville, especially of the non-dolphin variety, must be encouraged. If nothing else, it is that which to react against.