In a deep bronzish clay, the slender face, bold bulb of hair and thick, kindly creased smile make him look a little like Allen Toussaint. But this isn’t a replica of a jazz music icon or a university founder or a governor, it’s the now-austere visage of Sullivan Walter, a man wrongfully convicted a lifetime ago and finally released from prison in August of 2022.
This is dignity restored and hope rewarded, and it is one of many busts of exonerated men that sculptor Becky Gottsegen has made for the Innocence Project New Orleans, the agency that has freed or exonerated 46 innocent people, and 22 who were unjustly sentenced, since 2001.
Since 2009 when Gottsegen left furniture design for clay, the Baton Rouge native has been turning out remarkably accurate and emotive renderings of the human likeness. Usually called upon by family for costume help like the electric eels she made for her granddaughter’s Finding Nemo play, an iridescent Taylor Swift outfit, and an Aperol Spritz-accompanying orange slice costume, the artist’s eye often shifts from the whimsical—like the sassy ladies of her “Out of the Mouths of Babes” series—to the intentional, like her art therapy workshops for the mentally and physically handicapped.
The 71-year-old wants her work to impact everyday people more than gallery walls, and inspire not just fine art collectors, but those far less fortunate.
“These are men that have had every bit of self-worth stripped away from them, so this is a chance to humanize them, to show a certain seriousness, with a hint of a smile, because they are now free men,” Gottsegen says. “But their faces are all so unique and expressive.”
A few years ago, at the request of a friend, Gottsegen was drafted to use her talents to conjure artistic bras for the BUST Breast Cancer Bra Art Fashion Show that raises a half a million dollars annually for breast cancer research.
“To have been through the horrors of surgery, chemo and radiation, it alters their lives forever, and they never really get over the fear that it will recur,” Gottsegen says. “So the joy that these women feel on the runway is powerful.”
Last fall, she created a wearable bra with sculptures of cancer survivor Laurie Lynn Drummond’s rescued animals for the event.
“Inside Becky’s home, there is a hand-carved mahogany table inlaid with the words she and her husband, Warren, live by: ‘The secret of life is in art,’” Drummond says. “She is truly passionate about using her creative skills to better the lives of so many people.”
One of those is Gottsegen’s ardent ally Roxson Welch, executive director of the Family and Youth Service Center (FYSC), an organization devoted to assisting, protecting and providing for at-risk children and their families in East Baton Rouge Parish. The nonprofit center partners with a variety of agencies and advocacy groups to be a lifeline for minors affected by violent crimes and domestic abuse, and it recently recruited Gottsegen for its new interactive art piece.
Once her unique design was conceived, the sculpture artist quickly recruited a dozen-strong “Clay Day Crew” to build her 3D tree sculpture for the FYSC headquarters.
“It’s so beautiful and will be finished with messages written on the leaves by kids,” Welch says. “The children we’ve assisted will share one thing they love most about themselves on the leaves. Imagine the power of that! The most beautiful kind of art ‘speaks’ to us, and Becky’s tree will allow children to use their voices.”
Many of these children have survived moments or even years of violence, and Welch and Gottsegen hope that reading these “Leaves of Love” will be an inspiration to all.
Witnessing her various projects up close, Welch understands intricately how Gottsegen continues to view art through a lens of impact and faces community challenges and personal tragedies with her full creativite focus.
“Shared art can be a powerful vehicle of communication,” Welch says. “And the messages are so important.”
Now, Gottsegen hopes her work can go beyond the bust. She wants the organization to secure grant money so she can create busts for each exonerated person aided by the Innocence Project, and then produce a gallery show to illuminate the need for long-delayed justice and compensation, and a gracious gaze on those who have been put through so much by a flawed legal system.
“I saw a post not long ago that really resonated with me. It said, ‘You like taking care of people because it heals the part of you that needed someone to take care of you,’” Gottsegen says. “That’s been my driving force.”