Arts / Galleries

Missing Galveston Statue Honors Hurricane Victims and an Art Detective Quest Could Bring it Back

Will Galveston Finally Get to Heal 119 Years Later?

BY // 05.01.19

This art-world detective story began a century ago – with the disappearance of a plaster sculpture intended to be cast into a monument to commemorate America’s most horrific natural disaster.

That would be the Great Storm of 1900, a category 4 hurricane which came ashore on Galveston Island 119 years ago, September 8, 1900.

The decimation of what was then Texas’ most prosperous metropolis rocked the nation. Media tycoon William Randolph Hearst organized a fundraising bazaar in Manhattan in response.

One of those participating artists would have the course of his life changed by his donation to the Galveston benefit.

His interest in the cause and interaction with Texans at the event held at the Waldorf-Astoria would lead the sculptor to move to Texas, and embark upon a notable half-century career from his home and studio in San Antonio.

A Coppini Primer

The artist, Pompeo Coppini (1870-1957), memorialized the Victims of the Galveston Flood first in clay, then plaster — awaiting a patron to fund a heroic bronze version. The disappearance of the final maquette sculpture is a grand unsolved mystery requiring a skilled art-world detective.

Coppini, an Italian immigrant, was one of the go-to figurative sculptors in his day, working first in New York and Chicago, then San Antonio. In Texas, he is best known for the Littlefield Fountain, a memorial to the fallen of World War I on The University of Texas at Austin campus, and the Alamo Cenotaph in San Antonio.

The search for the vanished Coppini Victims sculpture has met its match in Austin talent promoter and preservationist John Bernardoni, whose own great-grandfather perished in the storm of 1900 after he went back to rescue another family.

For the past three years, Bernardoni has been obsessed with locating the sculpture that went missing somewhere in the 1920s, in the bowels of The University of Texas at Austin. The plaster sculpture was last recorded in the Cactus Yearbook of 1920, referencing an exhibition on campus during December 1919.

Searching for 100-Year-Old Clues

Ever since a chance lunch conversation in May 2016, Bernardoni has been on the hunt, checking in with archives and contacting historians; some 4,000 emails have been sent, and queries made to at least 70 individuals and entities. When he rang us up last summer — at the recommendation of Galveston native, PR maven Dancie Ware — we were intrigued.

A volley of communications was exchanged: texts, calls, and finally a luncheon meeting where he reiterated his commitment to either find and cast the original sculpture, now lost for exactly 100 years to the sands of time — or devise another solution.

For Bernardoni has a plan B: to commission a contemporary sculptor to recreate the original 10-foot tall work of art that depicted a woman arising from flood waters, dramatically clutching at an infant, while a little girl tugs at her skirt.

“The first time I saw the photo of the statue it really put the hook in me, so visceral was the reaction,” says Bernardoni, who founded and now single handedly manages The Lost Coppini Statue Project.

Sculptor and Foundry Selected

With an artist now secured — Ivan Schwartz / Studio EIS, of Brooklyn, whose portfolio includes 42 sculptures of the signers of the constitution, at the National Constitution Center, Philadelphia — and a budget of $450,000 projected, Bernardoni is ready to move to the next phase.

Bernardoni has recently announced the artist studio which will be bringing forth the lost Coppini “Victims” sculpture: Ivan Schwartz / Studio EIS, of Brooklyn, whose portfolio includes 42 sculptures of the signers of the constitution, at the National Constitution Center, Philadelphia. The projected budget is approximately $450,000. (Courtesy Ivan Schwartz / Studio EIS)
Bernardoni has just revealed to PaperCity the artist who will be bringing forth the lost Coppini “Victims” sculpture: Ivan Schwartz / Studio EIS, of Brooklyn. The studio’s niche is in bringing to life heroic individuals from American history.

The foundry is equally notable — The Lost Coppini Statue Project plans to tap Polich Tallix Fine Art Foundry in Walden, New York, to cast the lost “Victims of the Galveston Flood.” The foundry is known for public sculpture of prominent Americans in history and also annually casts the Oscar statuettes.

Bernardoni told PaperCity he plans the statue to be a gift to the City of Galveston, and has had meetings and proposals out to local individuals and foundations, but so far the project awaits a lead benefactor.

More Than a Statue

The determined activist says of his mission, “The Victims of the Galveston Flood is not just a statue, a one-dimensional piece of bronze. It is a beacon, a symbol, a thundering scream, from era to era.”

Bernardoni tells PaperCity, “In my view, Galveston has not healed some 119 years after the fact. This monument, if embraced by the community, could bring about the kind of healing that might bring rewards in the future.”

The preservationist on a mission — one that is deeply personal — is determined that Coppini’s monument be brought to life, and that it stand not just as a fitting memorial to those 6,000 to 12,000 who lost their life, but as an emblem of Galveston’s resiliency, ability to avert future devastation by building the city’s seawall, and stance as a buoyant 21st- century coastal resort.


John Bernardoni (Photo by Philip Rogers)
Preservationist, activist, performing arts producer, and founder of The Lost Coppini Statue Project, John Bernardoni (Photo by Philip Rogers)

Days ago, we received another email from Bernardoni, in response to a recent tragic event.

He said, “The Victims heroic monument is not just a statue in the same way that Notre Dame Cathedral is not just a church.”

“Notre Dame is considered the “Soul of France.” In the same way, the Victims of the Galveston Flood represents the very “Soul of Galveston.” It will be our task, all of us, to capture the mystique and mystery of Coppini’s gift… representing the very best of what it is to be human.”

Find updates about The Lost Coppini Statue Project here.

Stay tuned for details about a Houston evening this fall where Bernardoni will present his research and outline the next chapter — six-figure fundraising for The Lost Coppini Statue Project.

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