A King memorial for Georgia

The empty space on the Capitol lawn reserved for the statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is likely to remain empty for years to come, given the ponderous process of public art and the countless details that attend it: how will the statue depict this famous son of Georgia, how tall will it be, when, where, how much.

Some of the answers emerged on Friday: a six- to eight-foot statue will be atop a base on the east side of the Capitol, overlooking the new Liberty Plaza and within view of the street that bears King’s name. The cost: between $100,000 and $300,000. Although state leaders found the will to build the statue, they didn’t find the will to pay for it, insisting instead that the money come from private sources.

The stakes couldn’t be much higher.

“This commemoration of the most famous and iconic Georgian could very well be the most important statue erected in Georgia and has the potential to be a defining work of civic art for both Atlanta and the state,” said Mark Abbe, an assistant professor of ancient art at the University of Georgia, in an email to the AJC.

In the end, of course, what everyone will care about it is what it looks like. The look will be developed both by the artist and by a committee that will consult with — and perhaps occasionally annoy — the artist. The questions seem almost endless.

“How is King represented? In effect, what King is this?” Abbe said. “The business-suited formal ‘I have a dream’ secular image or accepting the Nobel Prize? The minister in his vestments with Bible in hand? … So, too, the posture. Is this the public figure of King facing an audience (the viewer) or a private and introspective figure? Standing or seated? Active or static?”

Susan Krause, chair of sculpture at Savannah College of Art and Design, warns that whatever the statue looks like, “not everybody is going to like it.”

There are at least 30 King statues and busts across the nation, and not everybody likes any of them, although some are more disliked than others. There is the King with four heads in Toledo, the King with the too-big head in Pueblo, Colo., and the King as tribal chieftain in Chicago.

The King statue in Rocky Mount, N.C., caused such an uproar that the city cut it off its pedestal with a hacksaw, sculptor Erik Blome said, and placed it in storage for several years. Officials ordered a do-over but didn’t like that one, either, and now Blome’s original is back up on its base.

‘First it takes a seed of desire’

Creation of significant public art is like, well, chipping at a block of stone with a chisel. It takes time.

Public art experts say that while it’s possible for a team of artisans to produce a major piece in under a year, the fundraising, permitting, committee selection, drafting of a vision statement and identification of a potential artist can often take years.

“First it takes a seed of desire, but there are many steps in between,” said Krause, who specializes in public art. “The memorial in D.C., that took 40 years.”

The Washington project ultimately cost $120 million, garnered 900 proposals from potential artists in 52 countries. It was mired in controversy, from the nationality of the chosen sculptor, Chinese artist Lei Yixin, to the botched inscription of King’s words engraved on the monument.

Georgia’s project, of course, is nowhere near that scale, and it has already cleared some hurdles: it has a prospective budget, a location and, most important, the backing of Gov. Nathan Deal.

“We must come together to do much more than to commemorate the life of a great man,” Deal said at a King memorial celebration Friday. “We gather to rededicate ourselves to the spirit of selflessness by which he lived so that we may emulate his tireless example.”

Making a deal with the King family

The statue project also comes with the peculiar challenges of working with the King family. The

creators of the towering memorial in Washington paid the Kings $800,000 for the use of their father’s words and likeness. King’s children are currently locked in a legal struggle among themselves over possession of his Nobel Peace Prize medal and his Bible.

The governor appointed state Rep. Calvin Smyre, the long-serving Democrat from Columbus, as liaison to the King family. It was Smyre who offered details on the potential height and cost of the statue on Friday.

He also said he had an initial conversation with intellectual property attorneys for the King estate on Thursday.

“I’m not worried,” Smyre said. “I have a great relationship with members of the King family, and everything I’ve heard from them has been amicable toward a statue. I don’t see this as a really serious challenge.”

He acknowledged earlier, however, that the family would want to approve the likeness that’s used and that it would have to grant its permission to use King’s name.

‘You’ve got to be joking’

Krause, at SCAD, said that who selects the committee in charge of the project is just as important as who sits on the committee. In this case, the state could turn to a panel that already exists, such as the Capitol Art Standards Commission, or it could form a new committee just for this purpose.

What the memorial looks like will also have a lot to do with how much money is raised, said artists who have sculpted King’s image for other public projects.

Sculptor Ed Dwight has fashioned eight bronzes of King from Denver to Allentown, Pa., including the statue of King at Morehouse College. Dwight also did the Hank Aaron statue outside the Braves stadium and has cast a total of 120 monuments nationwide dedicated to African-American history.

His initial reaction to Georgia’s plans for the King monument: not enough. Both the budget and the height of the monument should be almost double what is planned, he said.

“This should be between $350,000 to $500,000,” he said. “Between $100,000 and $300,000? That’s ridiculous. You’ve got to be joking.”

For the sculpture to appear life-size to a viewer, especially in an open space against the massive backdrop of the Capitol, it would need to be nearly twice the height that is currently planned, Dwight said.

Now 81, Dwight remembers the day in the early 1980s when a group of Morehouse professors came to look at his progress on the King statue destined for the campus. It was only the third statue Dwight had ever done.

“Ooooo, they didn’t like it,” he said. “They wanted all these changes, they wanted his arm sticking out and that’s something I would never have done. They told me Dr. King only wore silk suits and what I’d done didn’t look like a silk suit.

“I pushed back a little, and they said, ‘Did you know Dr. King?’

“I said, ‘No.’

“They said, ‘Well, we did.’

“They were the client and I had to do it their way.”

‘It is time to have one here’

Abbe at UGA and others say it is fitting that this statue of King will, in effect, replace one of the one-time lawmaker and virulent racist Tom Watson that was removed from the a place of prominence at the Capitol last year.

“It has come to the point where the culture wants to get rid of the man who represented the negative path of Georgia. Early on, he was Georgia,” said C.T. Vivian, a member of King’s inner circle. “Now, this city has people from all over the world. They don’t care to hear about a culture that beat, cheated, destroyed people, belittled people… . They want to hear about a world where people had ideas like Martin King had.”

State Rep. Tyrone Brooks (D-Atlanta), was one of the youngest members of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference when King died. A version of Brooks’ original legislation to place a statue for King on the Capitol grounds was signed by Deal.

“I have seen King statues in Africa, Asia, across Europe. We have them in D.C. and small towns,” Brooks said. “Now it is time to have one here at the Capitol in King’s hometown.”

Brooks said that, after Watson’s statue was removed, a reporter asked him who should replace Watson.

“I said, ‘Who else but Martin Luther King?’” Brooks said.