'Fearless Girl' makes worldwide impact

Fearless Girl was installed on International Women’s Day, March 7, in Manhattan’s Financial District, and Dewey Beach artist Kristen Visbal has been trying to catch up on her emails ever since.

Visbal, who prefers to remain ageless, has lived at the Delaware beaches since she was 25, first at her parents’ beach house in South Bethany and now in Dewey. She’s quietly sculpted clay in her Nassau Valley Vineyards studio for decades, but her latest project has made the world sit up and take notice.

Fearless Girl was commissioned by asset management company State Street Global Advisors to celebrate “the power of women in leadership and the potential of the next generation of women leaders.” She’s strategically placed, hands on hips, in front of a piece of artwork synonymous with the male-dominated Wall Street: the Charging Bull.

“She’s saying, ‘Hey, we’re part of this Wall Street community,’” Visbal said. “‘Women are here and we’re your future.’”

A sculptor’s life

Visbal was born in Montevideo, Uruguay and held dual citizenship until she turned 21. Her father was a member of the foreign service and her family traveled often during her early years. When she was four, they settled just outside of Washington, D.C., in Potomac, Md. After high school, Visbal went to college at the University of Arizona at Tucson.

“I liked Arizona, but I just did not know what I wanted to do,” she said.

She moved back to the D.C. area and worked for Omni Hotels for several years. After her father’s death, her mother moved to Florida. Visbal took up residence in the family beach house in South Bethany. She worked in sales for local radio stations before enrolling at Salisbury University to finish her degree. There a major shift in Visbal’s career took place.

“I wanted to do graphic design. Design packaging,” she said. “But I had this teacher [at Salisbury] that was younger than the norm, and I was older than the norm, and we became friends. I just loved her. She got me very excited about sculpture.”

Between Sculpture 101 and an independent study class in ceramics, Visbal started entertaining the idea of becoming a professional artist.

“I did some soul searching and thought, ‘OK, you’re already beyond college age. If you don’t do this now, if you don’t try it, you’re never going to know,’” she said.

She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree and made a trip to the foundry at Turner Sculpture in Norfolk, Va. Her sculpting class had once taken a field trip there to learn about the process of lost-wax bronze casting, and Visbal wanted them to take her on as an apprentice. However, while checking out the facility, she met someone who advised her that working in a foundry was not the best way to learn. He recommended Johnson Atelier in Mercerville, N.J., a prestigious foundry that drew apprentices from all over the world.

Visbal submitted her portfolio and was accepted, but on a waiting list. To her delight, someone’s visa didn’t go through and she was called to New Jersey almost immediately.

“I ended up going into bronze, and the reason I wanted to do that is it’s the only kind of art that doesn’t crack or break,” Visbal said. “I had already experienced all these issues with plaster, ceramics, wood and was stumped.”

She studied at Johnson Atelier for three and a half years, honing her art and learning the lost-wax process, which involves many complex steps using clay, wax, ceramics and, finally, bronze. Visbal started out sculpting nautical themes.

“Anything that has to do with the sea is very appealing to me,” she said. “I started out doing mermaids, dolphins, turtles.”

Later, she moved on to human forms.

“Someone said, ‘Why don’t you do children’s sculptures? There’s a great market for it.’ So I sculpted a local girl and was amazed I could do it. “ Visbal said. “It’s hand-eye coordination - you either have it or you don’t. Human anatomy is something you learn along the way.”

Though she clearly had talent, it wasn’t easy to break into the public art market. In 1998, while still apprenticing at Johnson Atelier, Visbal sold her first piece, entitled Girl Chasing Butterflies, to Merrill Lynch. However, it would be a series of opportunities in Florida that would ultimately launch her career.

“I was visiting my mom down in St. Augustine,” Visbal said. “I went to this place called Marineland, where there were dolphins, and I fell in love with this one dolphin named Roxy. I asked if I could set up on the deck and model her, and I did a little five-foot dolphin.”

Visbal was so excited about the piece she sent out a press release, and included a sketch of a little boy riding the dolphin.

“And this guy calls me up and says he’d really like to have me sculpt it for Jacksonville Beach,” she said. “It took us three years, but we did it. And just as I finished that, someone else called me up and said they needed a sculpture of Bob Hayes right away.”

Bob Hayes, the Olympic runner from Jacksonville, that is - and so Visbal’s career as a sculptor began.

In 2004, she created a larger-than-life Alexander Hamilton statue for the city of Hamilton, Ohio. In 2009, she returned to Florida, this time to Atlantic Beach, for a statue featuring a girl swimming with a sea turtle. Her largest work was created between 2009 and 2014, a series of 10 life-size statues called The Cradle of Coaches, featuring the football coaches of Miami University’s Oxford, Ohio location. Her latest work, a mermaid swimming with dolphins, has yet to be unveiled in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Fearless, not defiant

Once the idea for Fearless Girl took shape at State Street Global Advisors, a production company was hired to find an artist. That company happened to work with Digital Atelier, formerly known as Johnson Atelier and which still employed much of Johnson’s staff. They recommended Visbal for the job.

“They contacted me on November 30 and said they needed it by December 31,” she said. “We were in a big hurry.”

Visbal was confident she could meet the deadline because the original design called for a five-year-old girl that stood about 36 inches high.

“I submitted a sketch on December 8 and we did a conference call,” she said. “And they were like, ‘You know, that’s a really big bull,’ so we upped the size of the child.”

Now aiming for a 48-inch statue, Visbal put a call in to a friend in Wilmington whose daughter was about that size and immediately made the drive.

“I said, ‘OK, imagine yourself being strong in front of this big bull,’” Visbal said. “And she got up there, she was so cute. She stuck her chin out. She looked a little bit belligerent.”

After photographing the child and consulting with the production company, Visbal took great pains to soften the child’s facial expression. However, she was still left with a portrait of the child, which defeated the purpose of a universal girl. Visbal found another girl, of Latina decent, in Sussex and photographed her as well, melding the two girls into one.

“A lot of people have been saying this is a defiant, confrontational girl,” Visbal said, addressing Charging Bull artist Arturo di Modica’s claims that Fearless Girl causes the meaning of his art to shift into something negative. “No, no, no. She’s not defiant, she’s fearless. Big difference.”

It was December 29 by the time both the production company and Visbal were content with the design and she was able to begin working in earnest.

“So no way I was going to meet that December 31 deadline,” she laughed. “But I got it done in three weeks.”

Gone viral

Visbal said she expected an international response to Fearless Girl, “just not to this level.”

“I’ve been at home ever since we unveiled her, just frantically trying to handle all the correspondence,” she said. “When I went to bed the night before we installed it, I thought, ‘Well, this could go two ways. People are going to love it or hate it.’ And I really wasn’t so sure.”

State Street, for one, found the public’s reaction was positive.

“There has been an overwhelming reaction to the girl since her arrival, with thousands of people taking to social media to express their support,” State Street’s website reads. “We are encouraged by the positive response, as our goal was to raise awareness and drive a conversation around the need to improve gender diversity in corporate leadership roles.”

“I’m thrilled that people love it,” Visbal said. “The reason it’s so popular is that it’s touching on this chord of feminine equality and representation in leadership.”

The Russell 3000 Index measures the performance of the 3,000 largest publicly held companies in America, and according to State Street, one out of every four of those companies doesn’t have a single woman on their board.

Also according to State Street, research shows that “companies with greater levels of gender diversity have had stronger financial performances as well as fewer governance-related issues, such as bribery, corruption, shareholder battles and fraud. A January 2017 report by the Conference Board, a business research association, suggests that the reason for the outperformance is largely attributed to the outside perspectives brought into the boardroom by adding women to the board.”

Visbal said she’s “not a big women’s libber.”

“I’m very much a woman that likes to be treated like a woman,” she said. “I like clothes, I like a guy to open the door, all of those things. But I don’t think that has anything to do with equal pay for equal work.”

Future plans

“I’d like to set myself up financially,” Visbal said. “I mean, I’d like to quit renting and buy my studio.”

She could easily do that by reproducing Fearless Girl, but has yet to decide whether she wants to. She has decided that part of the proceeds from any reproduction go toward a charity or charities for young women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers, so that they’ll get the training they need to take on leadership roles.

In Visbal’s opinion, education is what is separating women from the board room.

“I think it comes right down to the socio-cultural issues,” she said. “Because women are child bearers, they often take on the caretaker role. And that’s necessary for the world to function. But you can be a mother and have a successful career. If you look at the statistics, there’s a discrepancy between men and women in education. We begin at home with encouraging our young girls, and then we need to give them the tools with education.”