The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Watergate’s unforgettable characters sit in her dining room. Does her artwork matter more in the Trump era?

Art collector and artist Jane Mason, 90, has lunch with her husband, Arthur, 94, beside the busts she sculpted of the main players in Watergate. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Every day, Jane Mason wakes up, descends the stairs of her Kalorama townhouse and walks into her dining room, where the men of Watergate are waiting. She fixes oatmeal for her husband, Arthur, and the men of Watergate watch them eat. She reads the newspaper, and from their plastic pedestals, the men of Watergate stare on.

Mason sculpted these men — or rather, life-size plaster busts of these men — in the summer of 1973, when the major political scandal surrounding President Richard M. Nixon was captivating the nation, and Jane, too. There are eight busts in all — including Nixon’s allies and members of the Senate committee determined to uncover what they had done. Mason, now 90 (“Though I don’t feel 90,” she protests), has rarely told the story of the busts and their brief brush with fame. Until recently, they were little more than another artistic creation that ended up in her basement, doomed to a life of collecting dust. Watergate had long faded from the national conversation; the busts didn’t seem to be of much use.

Then came Donald Trump, the Mueller investigation and, most recently, a book on the current “anarchy and disorder” in the White House from Watergate reporter Bob Woodward. It seemed every day brought a new comparison to the saga of Nixon’s downfall. It seemed there was a reason to heave the busts out of the basement.

Now, 45 years after Mason created them, her sculptures could have another chance at the spotlight — if she can find a museum interested in exhibiting a not-so-subtle reminder of the past.

“This was a moment of telling the truth,” Mason said, “and a moment when that truth mattered.”

Until then, the busts remain in the Masons' dining room. There is a plaster Bob Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff. A plaster Sam Ervin, the senator who presided over the Watergate hearings. A John Mitchell, the campaign director, who Mason always thought looked the guiltiest.

Back in 1973, though, she could not be sure who would end up on the right side of history. The famous hearings to determine “what the president knew and when he knew it” were broadcast live, a television first. As an art teacher and a mother of three, Mason had never made a habit of watching TV. But she was spellbound by the intensity of what was unfolding.

“You had to guess who was lying and who wasn’t,” she said. “Looking at the faces, maybe you could tell.”

On went the first heap of clay. Then another, and another. Neighbors would stop by the Masons' house to find Mason in a studio full of half-molded heads. One friend, so impressed, called NBC, and soon Jane Mason’s Watergate busts were national news. Local reporters called asking to come watch her sculpt. The Palm steakhouse in the District asked to display her work. When the hearings ended, two of the people she was sculpting — Sen. Daniel Inouye and the Watergate panel’s chief counsel, Samuel Dash — agreed to sit for her while she added the final touches to their faces.

Mason created plaster molds of each bust and finished them with a bronze patina. Reporters came to watch her present one of the Ervin busts to the senator. It is now on display at a small North Carolina museum dedicated to his legacy.

In the years that followed, Mason’s reputation shifted from creator to collector. She and Arthur, who worked as a tax lawyer, developed an interest in collecting sculpted or “turned” wooden art. They amassed a collection of more than 800 pieces, making contacts in museums around the world. Every crevice of their four-story townhouse is brimming with art. An original Dale Chihuly print hangs in their dining room.

“We gave a party for him and he sent it to us,” Mason explains casually.

Her museum connections — at the Renwick, the Mint, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago and dozens of others — make her hopeful that she’ll find someone interested in the Watergate busts. She has begun hand-writing letters to curators, inviting them over for dinner for a chance to see the busts up close. She has received a polite decline from the National Portrait Gallery, the place Arthur insists the busts belong. (The museum declined to comment for this article.) Many Washington museums have long prided themselves on objectivity. Choosing to display Mason’s busts today could be seen as drawing a line between the past and the present.

“In the polarized society that we live in, that would be a risk for an institution to take,” said James Burns, chair of the American Alliance of Museums' curators network. “It is going to take a curator that has a strong social conscience and is willing to not back down when people get upset."

A curator could also decide to exhibit the Watergate busts in a purely historical context, presented with little comment.

For Mason, anything would be just fine — as long as there’s good lighting. The Masons don’t see the busts as controversial. The artist describes her work not as a warning about history repeating itself but as a reminder of the ways in which it isn’t. When Mason looks into the faces of the men of Watergate, she sees Republicans and Democrats, working together toward a common goal of uncovering the real truth, rather than their own versions of it. Even the witnesses who would end up in jail were well mannered, Mason said.

“There was respect, there was courtesy, and there wasn’t — you know on TV today where people scream at each other? There was none of that,” she said.

“There was no accusations, and nobody would call each other names,” Arthur added.

Asked whether they were referring to President Trump’s tweets, Mason said, “I don’t watch tweets.”

Asked whether she would consider sculpting a bust of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, she balked. The reason she could capture the Watergate faces, she said, was because they were live on her TV screen, living out the most intense moment of their lives. It was as if they were sitting right beside her.

“I can’t work from photographs,” she said. Mueller doesn’t appear on TV. The Masons don’t think he would respond to an invitation to come for dinner.

“But tell him in the article,” Arthur said. “He is welcome."

Read more on Retropolis:

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Like Trump, Nixon was obsessed with leaks. It led to Watergate — and ruin.

John Dean took down Nixon with his Senate testimony. Now he’s back.

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