The bronze figure of a yarmulka-wearing man sits in a midtwon plaza here, a tribute to America’s one million garment workers. The middle aged man sits behind his whirring sewing machine, deeply and contentedly absorbed in his work.
Yet “The Garment Worker,” representative of the tens of thousands of East European Jews who found employment in the garmetn industry earlier this century, never would have come about if not for the resolve of an Israeli-born artist and a lucky twist of fate.
To create the bronze figure, sculptress Judith Weller, who resides in Manhattan, said she relied upon memories and some sculpting done over a period of time of her somewhat reluctant “very Orthodox” father, a garment worker for 15 years.
The 47-year-old artist told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that she intends the work to be a living tribute to the workers who helped make the garment business one of the nation’s largest manufacturing industries. Weller called the sculpture “a very personal work,” evoked, she said, from her “earliest memories” of her father, as he was at his sewing machine.
Weller said her Hungarian-born father was in his 80’s and that he had worked as a tailor in Tel Aviv after arriving as an illegal immigrant from Hungary in the early 1930’s. She herself came to New York from Israel in 1957 as a 20-year-old exchange student. She said her parents followed several years later to be near her. She said she has held down various jobs since then, including teaching drawing at City College and Hebrew at a now closed local yeshiva.
THE ARTIST’S FATHER WAS THE MODEL
Weller said her father was not pleased at the prospect of being sculpted because of what she said was the stricture from the Ten Commandments against “creating graven images.”
Weller nevertheless succeeded in getting at least his toleration of her effort. She said he would sit for her on her visits to her parents in Brooklyn and she would sculpt as he would become absorbed in sewing. When visitors came, Weller said, she would have to hide her work.
Her efforts produced a two-foot-high statue which would several years later be the basis for “The Garment Worker.” She said she was often told by some of those who viewed the earlier work that it reminded them of their own garment worker fathers.
As more people began telling her that they were moved by her piece, she got the notion to create the larger work and to place it in the garment district. In this, she received the encouragement of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU).
The sculpture weighs 1,500 pounds, while its one-foot-high granite base, which measures roughly six feet by five feet, weighs 6,000, said Jenny Dixon, the executive director of the Public Art Fund, a non-profit organization which helped Weller through the maze of reviews required before the city let her install the sculpture publicly.
Weller said she worked on the figure of the garment worker for more than a year, sometimes 13 hours a day, without eating, after traveling five miles to a foundry in Astoria.
While she sculpted, ILGWU president Sol Chaiken coordinated an effort to raise the approximately $30,000 needed for its completion and installation. She received no renumeration. All told 43 unions, firms, banks, trade associations or individuals, almost all with links to the fashion industry, contributed to the work, now located at Seventh Ave. and 39th Street.
Prior to the sculpting, Weller futilely combed the garment district for a home for the sculpture. On the verge of despair, she finally found a site she felt appropriate, offering, she said, a “very human area,” where nearby garment workers could come to on their lunch breaks, sit and “really feel good” about their work.
LUCKY TWIST OF FATE
The lucky twist of fate followed. Weller was told by a city aide that it would not be likely that the owner of the site would allow her to use valuable midtown real estate. But the aide apparently misjudged the owner, the noted Jewish philanthropist Jack Weiler. He agreed to share the site with the tribute and a plaza was laid out with frees, flowers and benches to accommodate Weller’s work.
“The Garment Worker,” which was completed in May, was placed in the plaza in August. The official unveiling took place this past week, during which Mayor Edward Koch, perhaps echoing the sentiments of thousands of New York Jews, quipped, “How do you know what my uncle looked like?” He explained that his uncle was in needlewear.
Weller said that in her sculpture she endeavored to represent the “triumph and dignity of every human being.” She explained that, despite the often slavish conditions which existed in the turn of the century sweat shops, “there was still love for work and they still produced beautiful things.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.