MLK sculptor on his statue: ‘A symbol for generations to come’

Martin Dawe had never felt such intense professional pressure.

More than a few nights the 61-year-old woke up in a cold sweat, worried he wasn’t getting the likeness of Martin Luther King Jr. just right. He knew there were all manner of King sculptures out there. Some looked like the slain civil rights leader. Some did not.

Dawe was charged with rendering an 8-foot statue of one of Georgia’s most celebrated sons, the first statue of an African-American non-elected official to grace the Capitol grounds. Adding to the pressure was the fact that the first sculptor to receive the commission, Andy Davis, had been killed in a motorcycle accident before he could finish the project.

So, after each fitful night, Dawe would go to his Atlanta studio and lay his hands on the huge hunk of clay that would become one of the most important statues in the state. 

“By far, this is the most challenging,” Dawe said.

At 10 a.m. Monday, Georgia and the rest of the world got to see the result of Dawe’s painstaking work when his bronze of King was unveiled at the Capitol. Gov. Nathan Deal spoke. And all of it happened on the anniversary of King’s iconic “I Have A Dream” speech

‘We’ve gotten rave reviews on it’

The ceremony was the culmination of a years-long effort to erect a King statue on the statehouse grounds. The Legislature approved the project in 2014 but insisted no taxpayer money be used to pay for it. Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, who helped lead the monument effort, said the final cost was $300,000. 

Only a few people have seen the bronze casting of the statue, which will rise 11 feet into the air on a pedestal on the northwest corner of the Capitol lawn. From there, it will overlook the boulevard named for King. 

“We’ve gotten rave reviews on it,” Smyre said. 

The artist chose as inspiration a photo of King walking with fellow strategist Bayard Rustin during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In the photo, King wears a hat, but Dawe didn’t include it. And that’s where the sculptor’s challenges really began. 

“He has the most elusive features,” Dawe said. “When you look at photos of somebody, you can’t read the concave areas of shadow. All you can read are edges. Dr. King’s head is so much about these undulating forms.”

Though many sculptors use photographs, Dawe realized photos would be of little help with this project. To make King look as lifelike as possible, he needed to see him moving. Dawe watched video from the March on Washington, but the images of King were taken from too great a distance. Then Dawe decided to watch the outtakes from a video series done on the march, and that’s where he hit gold. 

Included was an interview with King at the end of the march. The image was crisp. The lighting was beautiful. It didn’t matter that it was black and white. 

“I took that clip and put it onto a loop on slow motion,” Dawe said. “I played it over and over and over and over for weeks until I could figure out what the shapes were of his head. Then I’m up on a forklift 8 feet tall next to his face, and I’m watching the big screen with the tape on loop working for hours and hours with the clay to get it right.” 

In between were the nights of cold sweats. 

‘Suggests a beginning and hopefulness’

Dawe wanted King not to look stern, but hopeful. So he decided the best way to do that was “to imply movement.”

“He looks like he’s stepping off, not in the middle of a stride,” Dawe said of King’s stance in the statue. “It suggests a beginning and a hopefulness.”

The importance of the sculpture is difficult to overstate. 

“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,” wrote Mark Abbe, an assistant professor of ancient art at the University of Georgia, in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution before Dawe was commissioned.

The dedication also comes at a time when discussion of monuments, particularly those honoring the Confederacy, is at a peak. Smyre said he thought the timing was unfortunate and that he didn’t want anything to distract from the dedication. Even so, given the charged climate, he said he wasn’t worried about any possible desecration of the statue.

“We live in difficult times,” Smyre said. “I want to think positive and believe we’re in a better place than that. I think it’s timely and will bring people together.”

Dawe said he thought the unveiling was perfectly timed. The solution is not to remove statues, he said. Rather, it’s to place them in such a way that they are in conversation with each other just as the statue of Rosa Parks, who was the catalyst for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, is within yards of that of Alexander Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederacy, in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.

“Tell the whole story,” Dawe said. “Be clear.”

He’s not worried about any potential damage being done to the work once it’s ensconced. He has the mold to the bronze if ever there were a need. But the artist is choosing to dwell in hope, even as the nation tangles with a problem that King wrestled with until his assassination.

“This is going to be a symbol for a lot of generations to come,” Dawe said. “It shows how far we’ve come.”

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