Impeachment Art: Jane Mason’s Watergate sculptures.
I am so happy to announce that my mother, Jane Sommer Mason, is having her first art opening at the tender age of 93. Four of her eight busts of Watergate figures are currently on display at the George Washington University’s Luther W. Brady Art Gallery. On Wednesday (November 10, 2021), a virtual opening will feature Jane Mason, Washington Post reporter Jessica Contrera, and Jill Wine-Banks, one of the three Assistant Watergate Special Prosecutors and author of Watergate Girl.
When the Watergate hearings were held in 1973, my mother was spell bound. Then, as now, she cannot do one thing at a time. So, as she watched and listened to the Watergate hearings on her 9-inch black-and-white television, my mom sculpted the recurrent players. Each day I came home from school to see her madly wheeling one clay bust to the side and bringing in another as the television’s camera switched its focus.
Eventually, my mother completed eight busts of five men associated with the Committee (Howard Baker, Sam Dash, Sam Ervin, Daniel Inouye, Fred Thompson) and three men from the White House (John Ehrlichman, Bob Haldeman, John Mitchell) who testified before the committee. These eight heads became the Jane Mason Watergate sculptures.
My mother’s sculpting was a family affair. It felt big. We all were invested. Here is my father’s description of how my mom chose who to sculpt:
Choices had to be made because there were only so many rolling stands and armatures. Senator Ervin, Senator Inouye, Majority Counsel Sam Dash, Minority Counsel Fred Thompson (Jane’s bust of Thompson in clay at the left,) were the models on the Senators’ side. Ervin was obvious because he was a fascinating figure, the chairman, and constantly on camera. Thompson later became a successful TV actor, Senator, and then a President candidate 39 years later. Dash was also on camera a great deal. Inouye’s face and mind appealed to Jane. The ranking Republican, Howard Baker, a sharp and effective questioner, just didn’t present a face with enough distinguishing characteristics for easy translation into a three dimensional form.
On the witnesses’ side the choices were many and varied. These were men (they were all men) under great stress with the potential of going to jail. They were on for a day, possibly two. Jane had to work fast as she rolled a clay bust in front of the TV, then rolled in a different stand when a new witness came on. I thought Jane’s work with them was classic. They all obviously hated being there, unlike the Senators who loved the exposure. The best was Mitchell, a great brooding presence, living with an out-of-control alcoholic wife, tormented by his fall in grace and, in my view, constantly thinking, “where the hell is Nixon, he got me into this.” Then there was Haldeman, the public’s consensus pick for great villain, scheming in the oval office with a president who had just fired him and left him out to dry. His bust showed the remnants of his fierce pride and the self-important glare of a No. 1 Presidential counselor. John Ehrlichman, less involved and less at fault, actually evoked some sympathy from me, with his confused what-am-I-doing-here look.
My mother, Jane Sommer Mason grew up in Chicago. From an early age, she loved to draw and paint, artistic expressions that have been constants throughout her life. When my older brothers, four and six at the time, came home from school and announced that they could not draw, my mother was appalled. She told them, “Oh, yes you can” and promptly invited several neighborhood kids to join my brothers for weekly art lessons. Within a couple of years, my mother had a thriving art school, teaching drawing, painting and ceramic sculpture to almost a 100 children and adults every week. Now 93 years old, she still teaches drawing, albeit only to adults now (although I know she will make an exception for her imminently arriving first great-grandchild).
My mother’s Watergate sculptures received local attention at the time. And then politics died down, Watergate receded from the public’s focus and the sculptures quietly adorned my parents’ home.
Then Robert Mueller started a special investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election of Donald Trump. With impeachment for political malfeasance once again in the air, the public renewed its interest in the Nixon impeachment. Washington Post reporter Jessica Contrera interviewed my mom and late father, resulting in an article highlighting the relevance of the Watergate hearings and investigation to the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in American elections.
One thing led to another and the Watergate sculptures went on display at George Washington University’s Luther W. Brady Art Gallery in the final pre-pandemic days of 2020. Wednesday marks the opening originally scheduled for April of 2020. Please join in celebrating my mother’s artistic eye. Register here.