Pillars of a Nation is an image about the experience of emigration. It was commissioned by a man whose grandfather arrived at Ellis Island from Hungary in 1907. Like most of the immigrants who passed through Ellis Island, he came with few resources just a burning desire to succeed. Pillars of a Nation is a tribute to that grandfather and to all immigrants who came to North America.
My initial concept was to show the grandfather on a boat, passing by the Statue of Liberty. (Including the Statue was my clients only request.) The peak period of immigration was 1907 when one million people passed through Ellis Island. From there, the immigrants fanned out across America and Canada. My reading led to my becoming more and more involved in the subject. I eventually visited New York to see the physical location.
It was there, in the Great Hall as the Registry Rom was called, that the concept of my painting developed. I learned that once the immigrants got to Ellis Island, there was much bureaucratic red tape. The travelers arrived downstairs in the baggage room, then climbed upstairs into the Great Hall to be questioned and inspected for disease. If accepted, they would go back downstairs for tickets to their destination. They could also be refused entry, in which case they would be send back to their country of origin.
What excited and moved me about the Great Hall was the level and range of emotions that must have been experienced by those passing through the process and the joy and excitement of beginning a new life in a new country and all the hopes and dreams of the future. But there was another emotion, too FEAR the intense, overwhelming fear of being rejected and forced to return. Immigration took such courage and sacrifice. And the Great Hall was the place where ones future would be decided. It was this contrast of emotions that I wanted to capture in Pillars of a Nation.
In all, I worked on Pillars for about two and a half years. My extensive research was intended to ensure historical accuracy.
At Ellis Island, I was guided by a Park Service Ranger and talked with preservationists, architects and park employees all of whom were extremely helpful. I wanted to get the spirit of the place. I had seen photographs that showed the very impressive ceiling in the Great Hall, with beautiful tiles and chandeliers. I spent three weeks working on the ceiling tiles only to find that they were not there in 1907. During World War I, a German saboteur blew up an ammunitions barge that was near Ellis Island, destroying a good part of the Great Walls ceiling. It wasnt until renovations were made in 1916 that the tiles were installed. Thus I had to erase all the tile work I had done on the painting.
I was, however, able to find a spot in the Great Hall where one could have seen both the Statue of Liberty through the windows and the American Flag that hung at the end of the hall. These were symbolic elements that I wanted to include. I purposely enlarged the Statue of Liberty so that it could be seen over the heads of the immigrants.
I worked many long hours, from early morning to late at night on Pillars especially in the last month before its completion. I felt that I was living in the Great Hall instead of in the real world. This spiritual feeling connected me with the immigrants of the era. JD