Michael Meredith swears the nearly 40-foot tall statue he built in his Springfield backyard isn’t intended to be a representation of the Virgin Mary. But the pilgrims have come to his doorstep anyway.
They must have seen his blog dedicated to chronicling his adventures in constructing the statue. They came from as far away as Minnesota, Texas and Arkansas to bear witness to the giant head of a woman, propped up on a wooden support structure, her face and body draped in weather-resistant brown fabric. She appears to be bent over in a prayer of her own.
Around the holidays last year, Meredith's wife, Erika, said she all but shooed the faithful from their Southampton Drive home like so many Canada geese congregating on the lawn.
“I said, 'No, no, no, it’s not like that. I don’t want people praying here. It’s just a piece of art,'” she said.
Meredith, who runs a home improvement contracting business called Michael's Remodeling, said his statue has been up for about a year, though he has taken it down a handful of times to make structural changes. He calls his piece a tribute to motherhood, not the Madonna. In fact, when he began working on the project five years ago, he was modeling its form after Muslim women and how they dress.
“People take things for what they want, you know?" he said with a laugh. "They can go buy themselves a little Virgin Mary. They don’t need this statue."
Meredith’s neighbors in the Kings Park community aren’t laughing. At least one of them complained to Fairfax County’s Department of Code and Compliance more than a year ago.
The complainant, whose name was withheld, reported a “bizarre oversized statue erected in the backyard that looms at least 20 feet above the home’s roofline,” according to documents obtained from the Fairfax County Department of Code Compliance.
The April 9, 2010, report also said the statue was accompanied by a supporting crane structure at “dangerously high levels” above the roofline. Meredith said the wooden tower is used to hoist the statue, which then stands on its own.
The inspector arrived June 10, and found the statue “in progress” in the rear yard.
“In a conversation with the owner, she explained that her husband suffered from depression and used his art as his vent to relieve this problem,” inspector Bridget Merz noted in her report.
The almost 40-foot tall structure was a hazard because it was not clear how it was secured, the inspector’s report said.
The report also notes that Meredith called Code and Compliance on July 20, 2010, asking for names of anyone who would be interested in having a statue donated to them.
“I advised that I had no idea but that the statue did need to be removed from the site,” Merz also said.
The statue had been removed by the time the inspector returned August 5, 2010, and the case was subsequently closed, the report also said.
Beth Owens, past president of the Kings Park Civic Association, was the person who primarily dealt with community blowback in the last year.
“All I can say is that there’s two camps in our neighborhood,” Owens said. “Half the people seem to like it, half don’t. Obviously, it’s the neighbors that live directly near it that don’t … She does grab you, especially in the wintertime when there’s no trees to hide behind. She’s very obvious.”
Kings Park resident Christal Lambert has lived at her home diagonal to the Merediths for about 14 months. She says the statue is mostly hidden to her, but that it really grabs her attention when late-day sunlight glimmers across its golden face.
"I like it," Lambert said. "I love art; I’m a big art fan. It’s a great conversation piece for the neighborhood. I don’t know if all the other neighbors like it."
“It’s just different. People who come to the house say, ‘Is it the Virgin Mary?’ And I say, I don’t think so. I haven’t quite figured it out, but it ain’t the Virgin Mary,” Lambert added with a laugh.
Lee Meyers lives three houses down from the statue. She said when the statue first went up, “everyone was talking about it. Now it’s just a part of the street, I guess.”
“I think it’s beautiful, but it’s not appropriate for this neighborhood," Meyers said. "I mean, I love art, but I don’t know if I want to say it’s art or not."
Owens said the county ultimately determined that the statue didn’t violate any zoning ordinances because it’s a piece of art, not a structure, and remains a form of protected free speech under the First Amendment. Owens also said unhappy neighbors never really took any further action that would have removed the statue.
“When a group of folks contacted me in relation to getting it down, I said to them, ‘The wife is under the impression it’s hunky-dory with everybody,'" Owens said. "'So please, if you want to, just go talk to them neighborly and say, this really bothers us, it scares the kids, the dogs won’t come out, whatever. Let them know that it is an issue amongst the neighborhood.' But they never decided to take that route, so there she stands.”
Kayleen Fitzgerald, current president of the volunteer Kings Park Civic Association, said her group does not take a position on the statue either way. “As long as everybody’s obeying the zoning rules, we don’t have any problem with it,” Fitzgerald said.
Some anonymous neighbors even created a Facebook page titled “The Madonna of Southampton,” which so far has 55 fans.
The last post came Sept. 22, 2010: “I AM UP! And I am GOLDEN!!!! My face is so beautiful shiny gold…. Like an Oscar!!”
The statue itself is essentially a giant mannequin, Meredith said. The 300-pound, four-foot tall head is supported by a wooden pyramid, which is covered by steel tubing. That pyramidal structure is wrapped by steel fencing that forms the shape of the body.
Meredith, 56 had hoped to add two outstretched hands, but decided it wasn’t worth the cost or the time to engineer further supports for the heavy objects. He said he’s been working on this project for 15 years, which includes five years of actual construction and another 10 years to learn the sculpting, carpentry and engineering skills needed.
Meredith spent upwards of $6,000 of his own money on materials, including $600 on gold leafing for the face and hair, as well as many single-use pieces of expensive equipment like an arc welder. He also spent about $1,000 in print advertisements in the hopes he could sell his colossus, but those ads yielded zero calls. His asking price is $20,000, which doesn’t include transport.
Meredith says he’d much rather see his statue in a park, where lots of people can see it. He even says he tried to give the statue away months ago to the county’s Park Authority, but was turned down based on maintenance needs and vandalism concerns.
Judy Pedersen, a spokeswoman for the Park Authority, was unable to confirm that Meredith had in fact offered the statue, and had not heard anything about the issue.
His neighbor Lambert said he would certainly find a buyer if he’d only advertise on his own front lawn, based on the heavy vehicle traffic along busy Southampton Drive.
When asked why he decided to construct the statue in the first place, he said he is “just giving people a vision of hope.”
Driving past the home May 21 were Burke residents Patti and Jim Klein. Patti brought her husband past the statue to see it for himself.
“One day I was driving by and I was like, what?” Patti said. “It’s definitely artsy. It stops you. It’s not something you see in suburbia. It’s interesting – if I were a neighbor, I don’t know how I’d feel.”
More photos and video of the statue of motherhood can be seen at http://michaelsremodeling-mm.blogspot.com/.