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The Girl Puzzle Concept

Nellie Bly and the Women and Girls for whom she Advocated: Stories Behind the Faces

Listen Here - Concept Audio
00:00 / 05:39
Listen Here - Nellie Bly Audio
00:00 / 05:07
Listen Here - Young Girl Audio
00:00 / 01:43
Listen Here - African American Woman Audio
00:00 / 01:59
Listen Here - Older Queer Woman Audio
00:00 / 01:52
Listen Here - Asian American Woman Audio
00:00 / 02:10

For the full concept paper, please visit the Documents page.

Below are images of the original artist proofs (maquettes subject to amendments and improvements) that show the details and complexities of the women featured. Alongside the images are the unique, often heartbreaking stories, written and narrated by Matthews, that inspired each face embodied by Nellie Bly's words. Bly's words give the faces familiarity and will be embedded in the back of each in early American Typewriter font. The backs of the giant bronze faces will show the marks of their creation - the brushed-in wax, traces of welding and bronze casting; vestiges of something actualized through hard work and commitment.

"The best way we can honor Nellie Bly is to continue her great work." Sculptor, Amanda Matthews

Nellie Bly

Listen Here - Nellie Bly Audio
00:00 / 05:07
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Nellie Bly - Original Artist Proof

Nellie Bly once wrote, “I have never had but one desire, and that was to benefit humanity.”

Born during the American Civil War on May 5, 1864, her given name was Elizabeth Jane Cochran. At only 20 years old in 1885, her first published words were the headline… “The Girl Puzzle," which ran in the Pittsburgh Dispatch newspaper in response to an article by Erasmus Wilson, known as the ‘Quiet Observer’. His article titled, “What Girls are Good For”… “went on a screed against the working woman -- whom he declared a monstrosity”.

 

In The Girl Puzzle, Bly considers the value of women, advocates for poor working women, and argues that many social advantages are afforded to boys and not girls. She also addresses how divorce affected women and argued for reform of divorce laws. She was hired by the Pittsburgh Dispatch and given the pen name Nellie Bly, after the young African American title character in the popular song "Nelly Bly" by Stephen Foster.

 

Bly’s bold response set the stage for her professional career in journalism, and a lifelong dedication to activism for progress and equality, especially on behalf of women. Bly believed women were capable of being objective journalists, and there needed to be wider definition of the “women’s Sphere”. By 1887, she set her sights on New York City for new opportunities and left the “Quiet Observer” a farewell note: “I’m off for New York. Look out for me. Bly”

 

Her first assignment with the New York World Newspaper, owned by Joseph Pulitzer, was to go undercover and be committed to the Blackwell Island Asylum for investigation of their practices.

 

There were several steps in the process of being committed to the Asylum, which included a boarding house, the police, and a judge who sent her to Bellevue Hospital. She writes of the people in the courtroom of New York, ”I looked around at the strange crowd about me, composed of poorly dressed men and women with stories printed on their faces of hard lives, abuse and poverty.”

 

Bly wrote the heartbreaking narratives of many women incarcerated and mistreated in the Blackwell Island Asylum. Many were unjustly committed, and all experienced horrific cruelties. These accounts were later published as a book, which became her seminal work, Ten Days in a Madhouse. Highly regarded as America’s first investigative journalist, Bly’s reporting led to lasting institutional reforms, and shaped her life of dedication and empathy for others.

 

Bly gave a voice and a face to women who had no visibility or prominence in society. She was noted for saying “Here would be a good field for believers in women’s rights” and “Energy rightly applied and directed will accomplish anything.”

 

She bravely stepped into the lives of others who suffered in the margins. She was a champion for women, children, and workers. She not only spoke truth to power, but she exposed the truth for all to see.

 

While working for the New York World, Bly also set a world record for circumnavigation of the earth in 72 days.  When told by her manager that it was an impossible trip for a woman, Nellie Bly responded…“Very well, start the man, and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.”

 

Although her life and legacy include broad professional experience as a journalist, women’s rights advocate, suffragist, WWI correspondent, inventor, patent holder, industrialist, and humanitarian, a common thread for Nellie Bly was that she experienced the plight of those who suffered and powerfully transcribed this reality to the world, who had turned a blind eye. She moved the needle toward equality and progress. 

 

Nellie Bly died on January 27, 1922. The following day, the Evening Journal newspaper carried a tribute by Arthur Brisbane, which read…

 

“Nellie Bly was THE BEST REPORTER IN AMERICA and that is saying a good deal… She takes with her from this earth all that she cared for, an honorable name, the respect and affection of her fellow workers, the memory of good fights well fought and of many good deeds never to be forgotten by those that had no friend but Nellie Bly. Happy the man or woman that can leave as good a record.”

 

Here we end where we began, with a quote from Nellie Bly. “I said I could and I would. And I did.”

Young Girl

Listen Here - Young Girl Audio
00:00 / 01:43
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Young Child - Original Artist Proof

A young girl had been institutionalized in the Blackwell Island Asylum for 4 years. She spoke to Nellie Bly every morning and said, "I dreamed of my mother last night. I think she may come today and take me home.”

 

Bly's quote from this young girl represents a palpable brokenness. Such pain and loneliness are apparent as this abandoned child kept clinging to a tinge of hope that her lot in life would change. This face is inspired by my daughter, Audrey, who as a teen, was the subject of an emotionally crippling court case in which she was marginalized.

 

Her personal story and expressions of incredible pain also fell on deaf ears. Neither protection nor solace could be found as she suffered, while begging to be heard within a flawed legal system.

Advocates who choose to maintain the status quo often fail to protect the innocent. Bly spoke of another girl in the asylum who repeatedly cried, “They always said God made hell, but he didn’t.” 

 

Bly spoke up and affected change. She put herself in danger on many occasions to fully understand those who were suffering.  Absent this type of compelling representation, vulnerable members of our society will continue to be abused by those who use their privilege and power as leverage.

African American Woman

Listen Here - African American Woman Audio
00:00 / 01:59
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African American Woman - Original Artist Proof

Nellie Bly resisted being harshly handled by an attendee while she was being admitted to Bellevue hospital. Once freed from his grip, she stated, “I walked with the grace of a queen past the crowd that had gathered, curious to see the new unfortunate.”

 

Bly describes defending herself against other assaults and with frightening imagery, she depicts the abuse of the helpless women and girls in the Asylum, who “were in the power of their keepers”. Bly says they “could weep and plead for release, and all of no avail, if the keepers were so minded.” These descriptions of anguish and control evoked images for me of the unthinkable treatment of many minority women and their children throughout American history. 

 

My dear friend, Cutia, inspired this face. A strong, intelligent black woman who has dedicated her life to helping others, Cutia endured unimaginable grief when she lost her infant child. She understands deep and abiding loss and the agony of feeling helpless to change a dire situation. 

 

Cutia also knows first-hand the structure of dominance in America and the urgent need to eliminate systemic racism. The emotion in her eyes speaks volumes about the 400-year arc of history, including the pain and trauma endured by generations of human beings.

 

Similar to Bly in many ways, Cutia transformed her sorrow into passion that ignites her drive for equality, justice, and healing.

Older Woman and Member of the LGBTQ Community

Listen Here - Older Queer Woman Audio
00:00 / 01:52
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Older Woman - Original Artist Proof

While institutionalized in the Blackwell Island Asylum, Nellie Bly read a motto on a wall that said, “While I live I hope.” 

 

Bly stated that “the absurdity of it struck [her] forcibly..” because so many women were unjustly stripped of their freedoms and rights with no hope of ever escaping their fate.  They were convicted without “ample trial” for being different, or old, or an immigrant.

 

This face is inspired by my daughter, Natalie, who is a member of the LGBTQ community. Like many other Americans, she lacks equal representation under the law and lives in fear of being stripped of her freedoms, rights, and protections with every change to the US Supreme Court. This face portrays the hopeful trajectory of her life showing long-lived happiness and a perpetual desire for equality and acceptance of those who exist in the margins. 

 

Nellie Bly witnessed these disparities; and moved by her experiences, she wrote, “Poor girl, how my heart ached for her! I determined then and there that I would try by every means to make my mission of benefit to my suffering sisters…”

Natalie's likeness is aged forward 50 years, bearing a remarkable resemblance to my mother. It serves as a much-needed tribute to the queer community and to older women, sages who are rarely honored in sculpture for their beauty and wisdom. 

Asian American Woman

Listen Here - Asian American Woman Audio
00:00 / 02:10
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Asian American Woman - Original Artist Proof

On the wagon ride to the Blackwell Island Asylum, Bly states “I, as well as my comrades, gave a despairing farewell glance at freedom as we came in sight of the long stone buildings.”

 

Bly sees the “look of distress on the faces of [her] companions. Poor Women… They were being driven to a prison, through no fault of their own, in all probability for life.”

My dear friend and studio assistant’s mother, Mioko, inspired this face. Of Japanese descent, she is an American by birth, and was only 18 years old in February 1942, when by Executive Order she was moved from her home in Gardena, CA, and taken to the Santa Anita Racetrack to live in a horse stall. 

 

She was later interned to Rohwer—a 500-acre camp surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, and she was not reunited with her family for years. Mioko recounted this story to me in great detail when she was in her early nineties.

 

Bly describes “a woman taken without her consent from a free world...” and argues, “Compare this with a criminal, who is given every chance to prove his innocence.” I could not read this passage without thinking of Mioko.  She knows the sting of racism, understands the dehumanization of immigrants in America, and the loneliness and alienation of being held against her will under dreadful circumstances by her own government.

 

Bly “watched patients stand and gaze longingly toward the city they in all likelihood [would] never enter again. It means liberty and life; it seems so near, and yet heaven is not further from hell.” Mioko understands freedom that seems so near, but could not be further from hell.

Audio Recording and Compilation by Michael Breeding Media.