I entered that contest,” says Carol Wald, “with a will to win.” The New York artist and illustrator was referring to a national Bicentennial competition to select someone to paint a companion to the Spirit of ’76. That venerable symbol of patriotism—the three colonial men with fife, drum and flag—was originally painted by Archibald Willard for the 1876 Centennial; a version of it currently hangs in the Cleveland City Hall. “The old Spirit was historic, revolutionary,” says Wald. “I felt this was a chance to create something that would be a popular inspiration—a summary of the present and future of America to be seen by everyone.”
It took two years, but win she did. The first year she worked on an 8″x10″ scale model in collage. Once she was granted the $4,000 commission, Wald spent the second year executing the 10-foot-high oil to match the Willard painting. Her New Spirit—unveiled in Cleveland last month—will hang permanently alongside Willard’s original.
To prepare herself for the competition, Wald traveled about the country asking people what they regarded as the spirit of ’76. “I got many cynical answers,” she admits, “but I also felt many people were glad to find a reason for loving their country. There’s still a lot of patriotism and belief in the ideals we were all taught.”
In her painting, several American flags dominate the canvas. Willard’s old Revolutionary War figures appear behind the lunar surface, on which U.S. astronaut James B. Irwin of the 1971 moon walk plants a U.S. flag. “My figures represent forces for change and hope,” Wald says, “women, blacks, young people. I’m optimistic about the future: that’s the message I tried to get across.”
The painting is an extension both of Wald’s sophisticated collage technique and of her interest in printed Americana. Born in Detroit, Wald, now 40, spent much of her time as an art student scouring the country for early American pamphlets, ads, posters and sheet music. “Like most people,” she recalls, “I was never exposed to real art. I have always been fascinated with reproductions and their images. They are the authentic folk art of America.”
She often incorporates samples from her 1,000-piece Americana collection into illustrations for magazines and books. Her first book, Myth America, a pictorial commentary on the popular image of women from 1865 to 1945, was published last fall.
Unmarried, Wald lives “a narrow existence” in a cluttered loft studio in New York’s Little Italy with composer Ned Silverman. “What excites me about the Spirit,” she says, “is that it will be seen by everyone; it will tour, go to schoolrooms. That’s what I’ve always worked for: to speak through my art to the people I’m familiar with.”