Artist Conflict Surrounds King Memorial
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.
Yesterday, we talked about the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. By 2009, it will occupy some of the most valuable and visible land in Washington, D.C. A 30-foot tall granite statue of Dr. King will stand at the center of the complex. And the foundation behind the memorial chose master Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin to carve it.
But that's got artist Ed Dwight crying foul. He says he was unceremoniously replaced by Lei as the memorial sculptor of record. Dwight, who's African American, has been creating famous public sculptures for more than two decades. And he says he first got involved with the memorial three years ago.
Mr. ED DWIGHT (Sculptor): They approached me because they needed a sculptor of record. So in the beginning, what they needed to do was to have a series of small maquette of the memorial to give away to big donors, and so they engaged me right away on a contractual basis to be their consultant, first of all, to do these small models. And then as time pressed on, about three years later, it evolved into my contract arrangement that - it was never signed by them - to take the model that I had done, which was their logo and brand, and enlarge it to be presented to the Fine Arts Commission. Then the only thing left was the final sculptor or a methodology to enlarge my piece to 30-feet tall.
CHIDEYA: Your understanding...
Mr. DWIGHT: Yes.
CHIDEYA: ...was that your piece...
Mr. DWIGHT: Yes.
CHIDEYA: ...was going to be the final piece?
Mr. DWIGHT: Yes. Oh, yes.
CHIDEYA: When did you learn that this was not the case?
Mr. DWIGHT: Well, I learned it wasn't the case when after we had - because I was involved in choosing the Chinese artist, and we selected him. My understanding was we were selecting him to enlarge my piece, and as a result, he came to my studio and spent time with me in Denver. And this whole idea was for me to be bonding with him because I was to supervise him carving the sculpture. We put it in writing that I would do that. And I agreed to the writing and signed it and sent it to them, and they didn't sign it. And the next thing I knew I went to Washington, D.C. on another matter, and they had just taken the project and given it totally to him, including the, you know, the design aspect because I never expected them to allow this guy to start from scratch.
CHIDEYA: So your understanding was that he was going to work with you on your design...
Mr. DWIGHT: Oh, yes.
CHIDEYA: ...but that, in fact, he was given carte blanche to go ahead and to completely do a new design?
Mr. DWIGHT: Totally. And I was totally not informed of that. And as - if there's any grievance I have with them was their lack of courtesy of informing me that, hey, Dwight, here's what we decided to do.
CHIDEYA: But we spoke with Harry Johnson, he's the president and CEO...
Mr. DWIGHT: I know who he is, I know.
CHIDEYA: ...of the project foundation.
Mr. DWIGHT: Right.
CHIDEYA: Here's a little bit of what he had to say.
Mr. HARRY JOHNSON (President and CEO, Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial): I would tell everybody that there really is no controversy. What we have here is a competing interest of someone who continues to want to be a part of the project, and they are no longer part of the project. A team of designers, artists and sculptures went, and they chose Master Lei, including Ed Dwight.
CHIDEYA: So according to him, you were part of the selection of Master Lei, and there is some documentation that he works in stone that you do not. What do you think of that rationale?
Mr. DWIGHT: Well, first of all, it's absurd. Some of the greatest stone sculptors in the world, in history - when(ph) Chester French is - was the sculptor in record for the Lincoln Memorial. He did not carve the Lincoln Memorial, the Piccirilli Brothers in Italy carved the Lincoln Memorial.
And this is about attribution and this idea of my wanting to be involved with them is absurd. The only thing that I got upset about was the way I was treated. I was treated very discourteously. But they're trying to give the impression that all these people got together, and there was some kind of competition, and I was involved in selecting this Chinese sculptor, and I was involved but for the purposes of doing what I considered to be their brand. And the proof of the pudding is to this date, this Chinese sculptor cannot - has not captured the image of Dr. King.
They invited me up there in January, this past January, and I gave them a PowerPoint presentation, appraising his sculpture, giving them pictures, showing them pictures of Dr. King, where he was off, you know, and I told them at the time, you know, they asked me, well, do you think this guy has a capacity to do this? And, of course, if he's a sculptor. The problem is it's a cultural thing. And so, they don't believe in the concept of - I'm - I do black folks, and I know how they look, I know how they act. I know their anatomy. And here's a guy in China that's never been around any black people before in his life and he's expected to capture the essence of one of our greatest leaders. And it doesn't make any sense to me.
CHIDEYA: So if you had to explain to someone at a cocktail party, who you just met or at a cafe, who you just met, what your relationship is to this project, what would you tell them?
Mr. DWIGHT: Well, officially I have no relationship with the project. But that's of their choosing, not mine. And I told them that this was going to happen, and gave them an opportunity to obviate all these controversy. And they could have done it easily by having any African-American sculptor in the United States of America, not Ed Dwight necessarily. Give him the attribution. Say he designed it or she designed it, okay? Then let the guy do it if that's what they wanted to do.
CHIDEYA: Well, I have to tell you, Mr. Dwight, thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. DWIGHT: You're welcome.
CHIDEYA: Ed Dwight is a sculptor in Denver, Colorado.
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