New York Times
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Dec 12, 2012
PHOENIX » It started as a joke about 10 years ago. Chris Bliss, a juggler and stand-up comedian of viral Internet fame, had been scanning the headlines for inspiration and discovered the controversy over a granite monument to the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of Alabama's state judicial building.
"Instead of arguing over whether to leave up or take down these displays of the Ten Commandments," read his ensuing comedy routine, "my suggestion is to put up displays of the Bill of Rights next to them and let people comparison shop."
Funny or not, the idea intrigued him, so Bliss set out to search for Bill of Rights monuments, only to find there were none. He decided to try to build one, and to do it in Arizona, "a place that's known as contentious, a backwater, even," he said. As he spoke early Wednesday, the monument was beginning to take shape on a knoll overlooking the state Capitol, in a plaza full of other monuments and memorials honoring women, veterans and, yes, the Ten Commandments.
Before it could happen, though, Bliss, who left Phoenix for Austin, Texas, three years ago, had to figure out a way to get the Legislature to approve the monument on a slice of public land. In 2005, he was a guest on a radio show hosted by Kyrsten Sinema, then a freshman state representative, and asked if she would sponsor a bill.
"I'm a Democrat, and this is Arizona," Sinema recalled telling him. "You need a Republican to push this legislation for you." (Republicans have been the majority in the Legislature for at least 40 years.)
"I don't like ‘no's' for answers," Bliss said.
Sinema, who was elected to Congress last month, devised a strategy. If the legislation were to be approved, she said in an interview, it would need the support of a staunch Republican, preferably in the Senate, which is where many bills sponsored by Democrats customarily implode. She zeroed in on Karen S. Johnson, whom she described as "tea party before there was a tea party." (Johnson, who left the Legislature in 2008, prefers the "conservative" label.)
"Hey, for heaven's sake, how could anybody not be supportive of this?" said Johnson, who is perhaps better known for sponsoring a bill that would have allowed people bearing concealed-weapon permits to carry guns at public colleges and universities.
She had no qualms about putting her name next to Sinema, who at 28 was the Legislature's youngest member — as well as an openly bisexual lawmaker whom "a lot of people liked to pick on," as Sinema put it.
The bill stipulated that the project had to be paid through private donations. On Mother's Day, Bliss raised more than $100,000 through a benefit concert here, out of $375,000 he has raised so far. (He said there is still about $10,000 to go.)
The concert brought together some big names in both comedy and civil rights. One of them, Dick Gregory, 80, had marched alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and staged hunger strikes in the name of racial equality. Another, Tom Smothers, 75, was a star of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," a top-rated show on CBS from 1967 to 1969 before it was canceled over the provocative tone of its political commentary, particularly on the Vietnam War.
The bill passed unanimously in the Arizona House and Senate in 2006, which is unusual for a legislative body that remains politically divided. It was an encouraging moment for Bliss, who said it "confirmed it was a mission worth committing to." Since then, a commemorative Bill of Rights display has been unveiled outside the Poweshiek County Courthouse in Montezuma, Iowa, and another has been approved in Everett, Wash. Bliss has also begun raising money for a monument outside the Texas Supreme Court building in Austin.
The lead sculptor for the monument here, Joseph Kincannon, has carved 10 slabs of limestone, one for each amendment. They are planted outside the Capitol and will be dedicated Saturday. Each slab is undulating and unique — the First Amendment resembles the tip of a key; the Second Amendment, a pregnant woman's profile.
Kincannon trained at the stone yard at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in Manhattan. He worked there for 27 years, carving and building its ornate south tower. He said he wanted the monument's pieces "to have movement when they were next to each other" so they would become "inviting to the eye."
The blocks of limestone came from a quarry near Austin, where they were milled and carved over the summer. The heaviest, at approximately 7,000 pounds, carries the imprint of the Fifth Amendment, which protects against abuse of government authority in a legal procedure. The lightest, at 2,500 pounds, offers the Third Amendment, which prohibits quartering soldiers in private homes without the homeowner's consent.
Kincannon has read the material over and over, and from many angles. To him, the project was never about the significance behind the words, but about making them "comfortable to read," he said.
For Bliss, however, it is all about the words' meaning. He envisions the monument as a place for learning and reflection, "our bedrock principles broken up in 10 digestible bites," he said.