Simone Leigh never thought the art world would embrace her. Now she feels unstoppable.

Sculptor Simone Leigh finally gets her due

For ceramicist Simone Leigh, attention has been a long time coming. At 51 years old, the Chicago-born artist is having her moment. 

New York's Guggenheim just opened an exhibit of her work – the reward for her winning the museum's highly prestigious Hugo Boss Prize – and the Whitney Museum just bought one of her sculptures for its collection.

But Leigh's biggest project yet will open in June: a sculpture for New York City's elevated park, the High Line. The sculpture is called "Brick House" – the title of the Commodores song, of course – but Leigh says that wasn't her inspiration.

"I just like the idea of thinking about femininity in a different way – as something solid and enduring rather than something fragile and weak," she told "CBS This Morning: Saturday" co-host Anthony Mason.

Her base echoes the mud and grass homes of Cameroon and the figure's noble face is framed by cornrows that cascade down to cowrie shells. It features lips and a nose – but no eyes.

"I never have defined the eyes. Because I'm never really representing any particular person," she said. "And so I just stay on this side of abstraction."

The piece was cast at Stratton Sculpture Studios in Philadelphia. Co-owner Julia Stratton said it took 9,000 pounds of clay to make it and 6,000 pounds of bronze to cast it. 

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"Brick House" will open in New York City's popular High Line park in June CBS News

Leigh, who never went to art school, was studying philosophy in college when she took a ceramics class on a whim and discovered she kind of had a knack for it. She began to focus on African-American women in her work and on issues of race and beauty. 

But the art world told her she was in the wrong medium.

"Well, I didn't know how to be a different artist," Leigh said. "It's not that I had more guts than anyone else or that I was stronger. I didn't know how to be someone other than myself."

She admits it probably had something to do with her stubborn nature.

"I've never felt like I would be embraced by the art world at large … mainstream success I didn't think was something that would happen to me," she said. "I, you know, many years ago dug in my heels that I was gonna do just exactly what I wanted to do. And I never thought that I would be understood. I didn't think that a lot of people shared my interest. But the art world has changed." 

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Anthony Mason along with Simone Leigh at Philadelphia's Stratton Studios CBS News

African-American artists like Kerry James Marshall and Sam Gilliam are now seeing their works sell for millions at auction. This month, one of Leigh's sculptures just set a record for the artist – selling for nearly $94,000.

"What's happening with black artists in the art world in the United States and also globally is more of a correction than a fad or a fashion … and we're unstoppable now," she said. "I really feel that way. I really do."

Last month the team at Stratton Studios in Philadelphia put the finishing touches on "Brick House." Then the piece was packed up and carefully hoisted onto a flatbed truck for the trip to New York City.

"I feel really lucky," she said. "I mean there's been a dearth of sculpture, especially that represents black women, and so I'm very honored to get this opportunity. I think it's something that we need."