President George H.W. Bush helped reunite East and West Germany when the Berlin Wall fell, and a Mancos artist cast a 7-ton bronze sculpture commemorating the event.
For 28 years, Berlin and Germany had been divided by Cold War communism. More than 1,000 artists submitted ideas to honor German reunification, but only Veryl Goodnight’s sculpture was accepted.
There are two castings of the 1¼ life-size bronze horses running to freedom over broken concrete and twisted rebar. One casting of “The Day the Wall Came Down” stands in a Berlin park at the Allied Museum, and one is at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library at Texas A&M University. In Europe, Bush is known as the “father of German reunification.”
With the recent passing of President Bush, I visited with Goodnight to learn more about her art, her patriotism and the difficulties involved in moving large bronze sculptures across the nation – and across the world. Mancos claims to be “at the intersection of art and adventure.” Goodnight’s life exemplifies both.
HHHWhen World War II ended, the Soviet Army refused to relinquish Berlin. As Europe rebuilt after the war, Berlin remained a captured pawn in a larger global conflict. The Soviet Union insisted that East Germany become one of its “satellite” nations. Berlin stood isolated and vulnerable to ongoing communist threats of aggression. West Berlin remained a free city, but it was caught between the Soviets’ red sickle and hammer. Desperate and faced with starvation, West Berliners turned to America for help.
The newly created U.S. Air Force flew numerous missions in the 1947-48 Berlin Blockade and Airlift to provide food, clothing and fuel to Berliners trapped by the Soviets. My stepfather was a navigator in the 8th Air Force and proudly remembered those flights. East Germans kept fleeing their country and heading west, so in 1961, the East German, Soviet-supported government, ironically named the German Democratic Republic, built a wall.
At first, no one was sure what the purpose of the wall was. Why build a 105-mile-long, 14-foot-high concrete wall separating East and West Germany? Then it became clear. The wall, and the no-man’s land dividing the two Berlins, was to prohibit communication and commerce. Still, Germans sought freedom from communism. Dozens died trying to scale the razor wire-topped wall. East German soldiers shot to kill.
The wall stood as a symbol of a failed economic and social system. On the west side in political protest, artists covered it with graffiti. Finally, 28 years after the concrete barrier went up, it was breached on Nov. 9, 1989.
HHHVeryl Goodnight’s sculpture began as a dream after watching dramatic television footage of the wall coming down. It had been built to keep East Germans in and to keep freedom out. Goodnight’s dream was to use running horses as a metaphor and to have bronze horses trample barriers between peoples.
She had the dream. She had the artistic skill. She began her project. Meanwhile, President Bush worked to bring the two Germanys together at a time when reunification seemed economically and socially fraught with uncertainty and huge expense.
Last month, as world leaders gathered to praise President Bush, The Wall Street Journal wrote that he had made his “historic contribution” at the end of the Cold War and would be remembered as “a consequential one-term president who set an example with his integrity and sense of patriotic duty.” Politicians do their work, and so do artists.
“To commemorate the victory of free people over the forces of totalitarian rule, artists from all over the world offered pieces of art to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall. Berlin refused all these offers except one, the sculpture ‘The Day the Wall Came Down,’” says Roger Brooks, Goodnight’s husband. “By Veryl using horses to represent Germans breaking through a barrier to their own freedom, this sculpture also represents other people seeking to overcome obstacles to their own personal freedom.”
Donors funded the $250,000 casting fee for the 14,000-pound, 30-foot-long, 18-foot-wide and 12-foot-high sculpture. Simultaneously, Joe and Betty Hiram Moore urged President Bush to have his presidential library on the Texas A&M University campus at College Station. As Bush approved the placement of his library and archives, he met Goodnight and Brooks and also agreed to the placing of a casting of the sculpture at his library because 10 months after he became president, the wall came down.
HHHOne casting of the four leaping mares and one stallion stood for a year in front of the Currigan Exhibition Hall in Denver. The second casting became part of the 1996 Olympic Games near Atlanta. As it came time to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift in 1998, Brooks wondered if the U.S. Air Force could deliver the sculpture.
Gen. Ron Fogelman, Air Force chief of staff now retired to Durango, supported the idea as part of a normal supply flight to Germany. After speeches, flags, bands and a Colorado National Guard F-16 flyover, craftsmen wrapped and separated the sculpture into four sections for loading into a large C-17 cargo plane, aptly christened “The Spirit of Berlin.”
Denver children tied candy to the sculpted horses symbolizing the “candy bombers,” which dropped candy and precious food for families in Berlin during the airlift. My stepfather liked to tell that story, too. Artists work in symbols and the USAF delivered Goodnight’s sculpture as part of the 50th anniversary of the Berlin airlift, an important patriotic symbol.
Once the plane landed, the German Army transported the horses in a military convoy. Former President Bush, former U.S. Army Air Commandant of Berlin Gen. John Mitchell, and Berlin’s mayor, Eberhard Diepgen, gathered for the unveiling.
The horses leap into the air. Below them, painted to look like graffiti on concrete, lie broken stretches of the wall, part of the bronze casting. Painted on the sculpture’s base are words and designs documented by photographers before the concrete crumbled. In Texas, the horse sculpture is the favorite exhibit at the Bush Presidential Library on the Texas A&M University campus. The sculptures are identical, but with a significant twist.
On the base of the sculpture at his library, President Bush wanted the names of East Germans killed trying to escape. It was his request. He wrote Goodnight, “I found that the names of those East Germans, gunned down trying to get to freedom, made your marvelous bronze even more powerful.”
Later, he wrote, “I can’t tell you how pleased Barbara and I are that your wonderful sculpture, ‘The Day the Wall Came Down,’ now stands in the plaza of our Presidential Library Center. The message that you convey – ‘The Berlin Wall – Courage – Freedom’ – is particularly important to me, and I am confident that it will be seen and remembered by everyone who visits the library.” And in a handwritten postscript, he added, “It looks absolutely sensational placed in the courtyard.”
HHHGoodnight has public art in front of the Colorado History Museum in Denver; at the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Cheyenne, Wyoming; at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma; at the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas; and across America. But one of her favorite sculptures stands in Berlin.
“It’s huge. And there are so many personal layers to the sculpture. With public art, it doesn’t matter who did it. It’s the beauty that counts. Most folks who see this sculpture don’t know I did it and that’s fine. Art is completed by the viewer,” she tells me in her studio.
“Horses represent freedom in many cultures, certainly in the American West. As a Colorado native and a Westerner, I’ve always felt that running horses have symbolized freedom.”
In her book, “No Turning Back,” Goodnight wrote, “We will always remember West Berlin, that little island of freedom in the heart of communist Europe. ‘The Day the Wall Came Down’ sculpture stands in honor of Berlin, the city that made the fatal tear in the fabric of the Iron Curtain.”
Now, the sculpture also honors President George H.W. Bush.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College and an award-winning author and editor. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.