The newest sculpture at the Johns Hopkins University commands a peaceful spot overlooking the garden at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Located beside the art center, next to the bustle of Charles Street, the statue seems to bridge the worlds of creativity and public affairs that the late Rex Chao found so invigorating.
A bronze figure of a violinist, The Spirit of Music depicts a musician poised on the edge of his chair, a broad smile on his face. His expression may suggest the glow of a performance, the inspiration of music. Or perhaps the young man is already savoring what's next on his agenda.
The model for the statue was a person who seldom sat still, his family says. During his two years at Hopkins, Rex Chao performed in an orchestra at Peabody Conservatory as well as at Hopkins. A political junkie, he commuted to Washington to an internship with then New York congresswoman Susan Molinari.
Friends admired the 19-year-old sophomore's loyalty, focus and drive.
Creating a memorial sculpture for someone so multifaceted was a challenge. Maine sculptor Jud Hartman altered his clay model several times before Chao's family thought it projected the vigor and passion of Rex's life. Their hope was that art might help them triumph over the violence of his death.
The Spirit of Music was born in the tragic events of an evening in April 1996. Rex Chao was walking across campus with his girlfriend, sophomore Suzanne Hubbard, when they were confronted by an estranged friend of Rex's. When Chao refused to talk with him, Robert Harwood Jr., a Hopkins senior, shot him. Hubbard watched helplessly as her boyfriend died.
Harwood was sentenced to 35 years in prison for the murder. But his act continued to stain the campus it had devastated. It took Hubbard several months to recover from the acuteness of her shock. When she returned to Hopkins, she was determined to make her boyfriend's name stand for the joys of life instead of its darkness.
She and six other friends pondered the best way to make that happen. A scholarship? Not Rex enough. Neither was a plaque nor a tree. How could one best honor his vitality, his engagement with the world? Perhaps a life lost so suddenly to a physical fury called out for a physical response, for a permanent presence that was soothing and inspiring.
As a musician, Rex had understood the transforming power of art. So did Suzanne Hubbard.
A flute player, Hubbard also performed in the Hopkins Symphony Orchestra. She loved to watch Rex's intensity while he played his violin, loved to see him lose self-awareness. Perhaps a statue that captured the essence, the life-affirming goodness, of such music-making might tip back the scales. It might be a way Rex could inspire generations of students and teachers he had never met.
The Rex Chao Memorial Committee took its idea to the administration. It was the first time a group of students had ever proposed such a tribute to a dead classmate - and the notion required discussion and planning. Finally, everyone agreed on a statue of a violinist to be two-thirds life-size. It would be created by Jud Hartman, who sculpted the statues of Native Americans in front of the Lacrosse Hall of Fame adjacent to the Homewood campus. The work would be placed near the new arts center.
Next came the fundraising: The students needed to raise roughly $60,000 to design, build and transport the sculpture.
Rex's parents, Robert and Rosetta Chao, immediately pitched into the effort for their only child. They helped raise more than half the money from family and friends. In 1998, when Rex's classmates graduated, at least 300 people had contributed to the fund, including donors who had read about the effort in the newspaper.
It would take another four and a half years for the statue to reach its permanent home.
The dedication of The Spirit of Music took place on a cold November afternoon when the clouds chased the sun and the wind made women's hair all crazy. It was a day the world was very much alive.
Suzanne Hubbard flew to Baltimore from Toronto where she works as a manager in a consumer research company. Robert and Rosetta Chao chartered a bus to bring family, friends and members of their church from Long Island.
There was a brief ceremony inside the Mattin art center in which Rosetta and Suzanne spoke about Rex. Guests listened to a tape of him performing Mendelssohn's Concerto in E minor, Opus 64. There was a giant violin made from roses.
But the main event was outside. Rex's friends from high school joined with those from Hopkins. University administrators mingled with family friends. Together, young and old stood in a long windswept line as Kurt Von Roeschlaub, the Chaos' minister from Long Island, blessed the statue: