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Susan Geissler's opus

Oct 10, 2023

Susan Geissler stands with the photographer in her nearly finished sculpture, the 14-figure Lock Tenders Tribute Monument. The last six figures are scheduled for installation next month on the stone stairway between the Erie Canal Flight of Five Locks and Barge Canal Locks 34 and 35.

Her work is cherished throughout Western New York.

Grand Island celebrates the story of Charles DeGlopper, aided by the cast bronze figure of the famed World War II Congressional Medal of Honor winner.

Lewiston celebrates its heritage as a route to safe passage for perhaps hundreds of African Americans escaping slavery across the Niagara River, due to the emotional imagery of the Freedom Crossing Monument.

Visitors to Lewiston are also reminded by the Tuscarora Heroes Monument of the crucial role played by Native Americans, who fought off invading British soldiers after the burning of Lewiston, during the War of 1812.

In fact, Youngstown artist Susan Geissler’s signature public artwork is on display in 13 states, from California to Florida.

And now, Geissler is about to complete the most ambitious work of her career, the Lock Tenders Tribute Monument, in Lockport.

Geissler’s resume reads like a “Who’s Who” of prominent American artists. Although earlier in her career Geissler specialized in papier mache, she now points proudly to 40 bronze life-size figures, busts and monumental sculptures. The recipient of more than five dozen awards and prizes, Geissler is recognized as one of the premier designers of human figures in the United States.

The sizing of Geissler’s creations has varied greatly, depending upon the needs of the client and the location where the sculpture is displayed. For example, the figures depicted in Tuscarora Heroes and Freedom Crossing are slightly larger than life, whereas the figures in the Lock Tenders Tribute are life-size.

The 14 portrait figures in the Lock Tenders Tribute Monument comprise the largest piece of Geissler’s career. The project, designed and created on behalf of the Lockport Locks Heritage District Corporation, has taken 10 years of planning, fund raising and production to reach fulfillment.

The locks district organization selected Geissler to undertake a commission to commemorate “Canal Workers,” which was one of a series of interpretive proposals in a master plan for the Lockport Locks Heritage District written by the consulting firm Eisterhold & Associates in 2010. The recommendation was to recreate a scene on the stairway in the Lockport Locks based upon an 1897 photo of 12 lock tenders and a little girl at this very site. Geissler added a sculpture of the photographer, resulting in a total of 14 figures in the monument.

Little background knowledge existed about any of the people in local photographer F. B. Clench’s picture at the time, but it was a photograph that had received considerable attention from canal enthusiasts because the 13 figures in the photo were obviously assembled in a pose by the photographer. Identifying the names of those in the photo and researching their biographical histories has been the task of the volunteer Locks District Interpretation Committee.

The funding for the $1.5 million display comes from multiple sources. The Niagara County Legislature authorized three allocations of its share of Niagara River Greenway funding for the project. Other large benefactors have included New York State Canal Corporation, Grigg Lewis Foundation, John R. Oishei Foundation, NYS Department of State, Yahoo Community Benefit Fund, Niagara Falls National Heritage Area, Erie Canalway National Heritage Area, Clark Rigging, DR Chamberlain Corporation, William Pomeroy Foundation, Mills Jewelers, Spalding ACE Hardware, and 45 individual donors.

The creation and installation of the 14-piece assemblage have taken place in three stages. In 2020, the first three sculptures were placed on the historic stairway, located between the Erie Canal Flight of Five Locks and Barge Canal Locks 34 and 35. The following year, another five figures were added, including the figure of the photographer. Scheduled for unveiling in September are the final six figures, including the portrait figure of the little girl, Bessie Wagoner.

Attractive display signage in the locks area explains the significance of the cast bronze figures, which feature a level of detail, particularly in the faces and hands, that amazes visitors to the site, which is open daily throughout the year. Local residents and tourists alike take advantage of the ability to have a photo taken of themselves seated next to the beautiful works of art.

In the 1995 movie “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” actor Richard Dreyfus portrays high school music instructor Glenn Holland. Holland’s career work are the pupils he enabled to become the talented performers who celebrate his life story with their on-stage performance in the movie. In the same way, Geissler’s 14 cast bronze figures comprising the Lock Tenders Tribute Monument will stand as a testimonial to her tremendous creativity and sensitivity to assure that the Lockport lock tenders are memorialized for their role in making the Erie Canal the heralded success that it is.

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Susan Geissler stands with the photographer