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Duluth artist creates plaque to honor Deaf school founder

Steven Peterson helped create a plaque to honor the founder of the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford, Connecticut.

Artist Steven Peterson signs his answer to a question
Artist Steven Peterson signs his answer to a question as he explains part of the process he took while designing a bronze plaque to honor Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, the founder of the American School for the Deaf, during an interview at his home in Duluth Township on April 27.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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DULUTH — Deaf artist Steven Peterson likes a challenge. The former art teacher has been working with his hands for almost all of his life to create everything from wood carved gargoyles to carved wooden lamps that sit inside his Duluth Township home.

"When someone asks, can you make this thing? I’m usually like sure, especially if it challenges me," Peterson said. "I can usually kind of figure it out."

Peterson recently traveled to West Hartford, Connecticut to see the results of his latest challenging project placed in front of the American School for the Deaf. Back in 2020, Peterson was tasked with recreating a fingerspelling sculpture which spells out Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, the co-founder of the school and father of Deaf education, on the side of a recently restored monument honoring Gallaudet.

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"Gallaudet set up the American School for the Deaf and helped bring sign language to the U.S." said Peterson. "We're able to communicate here today thanks to his work. To be part of honoring that, of his work to spread sign language throughout the country, is really something."

Artist Steven Peterson stands beside a finger spelling of the name "Gallaudet" on a large white monument.
Deaf artist Steven Peterson stands in front of the finger spelling sculpture of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet's name on his recently restored monument in front of the American School for the Deaf in West Harford, Connecticut.
Contributed / Jeannie Peterson

Gallaudet is known for his work to bring Deaf education to the U.S. He worked with a French teacher, Laurent Clerc, to establish the ASD in the early 1800s in Hartford. To honor his work, the school originally had a monument erected in front of the third ASD campus in 1854, three years after Gallaudet's death. The monument also featured the fingerspelling of Gallaudet's name. It stood there for 65 years, but broke into pieces when it was transported to the school's fourth and current location in West Hartford.

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"It fell into pieces during transport, so it was stored in various places around our current campus for just about 100 years," said Jeff Bravin, superintendent and executive director of the ASD. "We'd talked a bit about restoration, but weren't able to afford it until one of our alumnus made a very generous gift, along with a few other alumni's gifts."

Artist Steven Peterson watches a YouTube video about him creating a bronze plaque
Artist Steven Peterson watches a YouTube video about him creating a bronze plaque to honor Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, the founder of the American School for the Deaf, during an interview at his home.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Bravin connected with restoration artist Francis Miller to put the pieces of the monument together. The final piece left was the Gallaudet hand shape sculpture. All that was left of it was a corner piece that showed the final E and T letters. There was also a unclear photo. Bravin wanted to work with a deaf artist to recreate the piece for the newly restored monument.

"The hand shapes that we have today compared to what they looked like back then have changed slightly in the orientation and what the shape looks like," Bravin said. "For a hearing person to really understand fingerspelling and the handshapes associated with that would be very difficult. But a deaf individual really understands the differences in the palm orientation, the visuals, and aesthetics involved. If we wanted it to look as it would back then, we needed someone who would understand."

Artist Steven Peterson, left, signs his answer to a question to translator Doug Bowen-Bailey during an interview
Artist Steven Peterson, left, signs his answer to a question to translator Doug Bowen-Bailey.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Bravin put out the word and started looking for an artist to take on the restoration, but didn't get much of a response initially. Eventually he reached out to an archivist at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. who was familiar with Peterson's work and connected the two.

Peterson quickly sent in some samples of his work and received the commission a week later.

Just as he was starting to work on the project, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S.

"Since I mostly had to stay home, I had time to really focus on the work and get into it," Peterson said.

An early mold of a plaque to honor Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, the founder of the American School for the Deaf, sits on the floor of artist Steven Peterson’s home
An early mold of a plaque to honor Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, the founder of the American School for the Deaf, sits on the floor of artist Steven Peterson’s home.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Peterson started by sketching out a full version of the sculpture. After a few revisions with the school, they settled on the design and Peterson got to work creating a clay mold, followed by a plaster cast which would later be turned into bronze.

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Although he was fairly faithful to the design he researched, Peterson did add two of his own personal touches to the piece. His initials "SP" are hidden in the swirls underneath the letter D. The D hand shape also makes a handy place to set a flower on the monument, something Peterson did at the unveiling this spring.

Four men stand beside a white marble statue
Steven Peterson stands with restorer Francis Miller and American School for the Deaf executive director Jeff Bravin and another man involved with the project to restore the Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet Monument in front of the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford, Connecticut
Contributed / Jeannie Peterson

Bravin remembers the day the large crate containing the mold arrived from Peterson.

"I called in Francis and some other folks to come together as we opened it up," Bravin said. "I have to say, as we took the top off, we got goosebumps. It was incredible, this piece of art. It would add so much to this monument."

Peterson traveled to West Hartford for the unveiling this April, after a couple of delays due to the pandemic. When the monument was unveiled, Bravin said he noted a couple of tears from Peterson as he reached out to touch the hand sculpture relief.

"It was so exciting to get there after waiting so long," Peterson said. "It was quite an honor to be part of it."

Now that his latest challenging project is complete and in place, Peterson said he's ready to take on his next one.

"I'm ready and waiting," Peterson said.

Artist Steven Peterson uses sign language to tell a story
Artist Steven Peterson uses sign language to tell a story.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Related Topics: DULUTHART
Teri Cadeau is a general assignment and neighborhood reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. Originally from the Iron Range, Cadeau has worked for several community newspapers in the Duluth area for eight years including: The Duluth Budgeteer News, Western Weekly, Weekly Observer, Lake County News-Chronicle and occasionally, the Cloquet Pine Journal. When not working, she's an avid reader and crafter.
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