What shall we do with our Kentucky?

Last Friday, I stood among seven-feet-tall faces of five women.

Each on its own pedestal, they towered over me — but couldn’t quite block the chilly wind that came off the East River when the sun went behind the clouds.

I was on the northern tip of Roosevelt Island in New York City for the unveiling of The Girl Puzzle, a beautiful monument to Nellie Bly and to the women she wrote about during her career. I was there because Amanda Matthews — who sculpted Alice Dunnigan, another amazing woman and writer — invited me. Over the last three years, whenever Amanda has said, “Do you want to go…” I say yes before she finishes the question.

Last Saturday, I woke up in a New York City hotel room to the news that Kentucky, my beloved home state, had been devastated by tornadoes the night before. And not just my state but my region and my hometown. Nearly every family member I have lives in the path the tornadoes took. Thankfully, my family is safe, as is my childhood home.

It was difficult to be so far from home when I learned this news. I live in Lexington now, so even if I had been in Kentucky, I wouldn’t have been hiding in the closet like my parents and younger siblings and dog did in Bowling Green. But I would’ve been among Kentuckians who immediately came to the aid of their fellow Kentuckians across the state. Instead, my heart broke and was healed as I saw social media posts of the destruction and of the love in response.

And, yeah, I cried a little in a New York City pizzeria.

At the unveiling on Friday, the focus was on women.

The primary purpose of the monument was one woman: Nellie Bly. Roosevelt Island was an important spot during her incredible journalism career; then called Blackwell’s Island, it was home to the asylum that Bly checked herself into so that she could write about the deplorable conditions within. Now Nellie’s face permanently watches the building that used to be the asylum.

But what I love the most about Amanda’s work is that it is never about only one woman. Her Alice Dunnigan sculpture, which is now in its permanent location in Russellville, Kentucky, is literally a lifesize depiction of just Alice. But as I reported on the project, I met so many wonderful women in Alice’s orbit: Amanda herself; Amanda’s daughters and mother; Alice’s granddaughters and great-nieces; Dr. Nancy Dawson, a historian who has honored Alice in quilt and other forms; Carol McCabe Booker, who abridged Alice’s autobiography; and so on. I considered myself lucky to join the orbit.

With The Girl Puzzle, Amanda honors Nellie Bly by putting some of the women in her orbit in bronze alongside her. The four faces that frame Nellie’s represent women she met in the asylum and wrote about in her book, Ten Days in a Mad-House. The words etched into the back of each face come from Bly’s reporting.

READ: The Girl Puzzle by Nellie Bly

The faces, though, are based on women whom Amanda knows, and three of the inspirations were at the unveiling: Cutia Bacon Brown and Amanda’s daughters, Natalie Fields and Audrey Matthews-Fields.

Of course I realized the Kentucky connections from the beginning: I and many others followed Amanda from Kentucky. Before the ceremony, chatting with the people seated around me, we realized we had all made the trip from Lexington. And Cutia Bacon Brown mentioned during her speech that she’s a Louisville native who went to Kentucky State University, my employer.

But not until afterward, standing among the sculptures, did it sink in that faces of Kentucky women are now permanently displayed on an island in New York City. Most visitors will probably never know — there’s no signage that identifies the women as Kentuckians — but I know. And hopefully more Kentucky women will make the trip to see not only women role models of all races but also women role models from their, our, home.

The first time I ever met Amanda, she told me that she loves to sculpt “women who have grit, women who have passion, women who have purpose.”

“Kentucky has a lot of those women,” she said.

Late on Saturday night, after a delayed flight, I landed in Louisville, then drove to Lexington.

Today I am at my parents’ house in Bowling Green. I have never been more grateful to be home, to be in Kentucky. And I’m thinking of faces of Kentucky women, on an island in New York City, sculpted to weather storms.

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Writer, reader, Kentuckian.

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Bailey Vandiver

Bailey Vandiver

Writer, reader, Kentuckian.

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