Delsarte's epic MLK mural exhibits a legacy of its own

Martin Luther King Jr. spoke frequently of his hope that people of diverse backgrounds could achieve a "beloved community." The public effort that went into painting the 125-foot mural about his life that was dedicated in 2010 outside the MLK National Historic Site’s visitors center mirrored that ideal.

Some 125 volunteers, from ages 2 to 95, descended on a Studioplex lofts work space on Auburn Avenue one summer day in 2009 to paint inside the lines of a mural created by Louis Delsarte, a prominent Atlanta artist and an art professor at King’s alma mater, Morehouse College. Another 50-plus artistic types became regular helpers. It took all of their contributions to complete the epic "filmstrip of King’s life," as Delsarte called it, in time for the 2010 King national holiday.

That communal spirit will be honored in an exhibit of paintings and other works by more than 30 of those volunteers that opens Friday at the Defoor Centre, a northwest Atlanta gallery/event space/cafe.

"Had it not been for the community, the mural would not have been done," said Cheryl D'Amato, who served as Delsarte's project manager and volunteer coordinator. "They were not only enthusiastic about the project, they were emotional about it. A lot of them were too young to have experienced the civil rights movement first-hand and felt by helping on the mural, they were part of the movement's continuation."

Delsarte, who will be represented in the Defoor Centre exhibit by several studies he did for the MLK mural plus a couple of newer paintings, called the volunteers "inspirational" during what was by far the most communal art-making effort in which he's been involved.

Before taking on the MLK chronicle, the Brooklyn native, now 67, was perhaps best known for murals in Harlem (at the North Fork Bank, opposite the Apollo Theater) and Brooklyn (in the Church Avenue subway station) as well as a large-scale painting in the lobby of the Southwest Arts Center's Performance Theater and Gallery in Atlanta.

Delsarte said he considers the MLK creation, commissioned by the City of Atlanta Office of Cultural Affairs’ Public Art Program, his most important mural.

"People from all over the United States and the world have seen it," he said. "I get a lot of positive feedback from it and I guess it's part of my legacy."

One of the unexpected legacies of the MLK project is that several of the volunteers, empowered by the experience, have gone on to create or help execute public art murals in places including St. Simons Island, Macon and Harrisburg, Pa., as well as at Atlanta's Beltline and Buckhead Branch Library.

Fittingly, at the artists reception at the Defoor Centre on Jan. 22 (2-4 p.m.), the public can participate in the creation of a new mural, an effort being organized by Daniel Bourdua, founder of the non-profit art organization Dreaming Justice (www.ATLhope.org). Bourdua said he believes in the power of murals to "bring people together and build community fabric. They can make conversations happen that really affect change."

Exhibit preview

“Delsarte-Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Mural Volunteer Artists Exhibition”

Opens Friday, through Feb. 29, at the Defoor Centre. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays, weekends by appointment. Free. 1710 Defoor Ave. N.W., Atlanta. 404-591-3900; www.defoorcentre.com.

Play reading honors MLK

On the King National Holiday on Monday, the Alliance Theatre will present two free readings of "Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Happiness," an original script by Atlanta author and playwright Pearl Cleage in collaboration with students in its high school Collision Project.

Inspired by the Declaration of Independence, "Life, Liberty" uses the voices of teens to question issues of citizenship and diversity. Presented in partnership with the Anti-Defamation League, the performances are at 1 and 3 p.m. at the Woodruff Arts Center's Rich Auditorium, 1280 Peachtree St N.E., Atlanta. RSVP via 404-733-4749 or atedu@woodruffcenter.org.

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