Artist Hank Willis Thomas' and MASS Design Group's "The Embrace," a bronze-finish sculpture of two pairs of giant arms embracing each other, has been chosen to honor Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King Jr. on the Boston Common. Thomas is an acclaimed conceptual artist focused on issues of history and identity.
He said the 22-foot-high proposed sculpture was inspired by an iconic photo of the Kings embracing after King Jr. had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The photo, he said, looks almost as if Coretta is supporting Martin's weight.
“We often look at the heroes without seeing who is holding them up and where their courage or strength comes from," Thomas said in a phone interview. "The love that she exhibited by carrying his legacy even after he was gone is something we should be paying attention to.”
Thomas sought to abstract the image, by focusing solely on two pairs of intertwining arms and hands. The memorial builds on the artist's highly sought after sculptural work that re-investigates overlooked elements in history through photographic images.
Growing up, Thomas was surrounded by photographic archives made by African-Americans or depicting African-Americans that his mother, Deborah Willis, a photographic historian and artist, examined. His contemporary work draws from that fascination with photography.
Thomas' sculpture "Raise Up," now at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, is a depiction of black men with their hands up, suggesting they are held up by police at gunpoint — inspired by a 1960s photograph by Ernest Cole of South African miners. His "All Power to All People," an 800-pound aluminum-and-steel sculpture of an Afro pick with a Black Power clenched fist as the handle, was one of the most engaging pieces in the city of Philadelphia's public art project "Monument Lab" in the fall of 2017. It was just acquired by Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Thomas' work also sits in public collections in the U.S., including at MoMA, the Guggenheim Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art and the Brooklyn Museum.
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The memorial on Boston Common is part of a sweeping, ambitious project to honor the Kings in this city by King Boston, a private nonprofit working closely with the city of Boston. King Boston had initially said the budget for the entire project would amount to about $15 million, but in an email on Friday, King Boston founder Paul English said the total cost now stands at $12 million with $5 million going toward the Boston Common memorial. So far King Boston has raised $6 million, with $1 million coming from English himself. On MLK day in January, Boston University and the Boston Foundation announced they'd give a combined gift of $750,000 to King Boston.
A committee of MLK and public art scholars, arts administrators and artists led by Edmund Barry Gaither, the director of the Museum of the National Center for Afro-American Artists, and Karin Goodfellow, the director of the Boston Art Commission, chose the winning design from five finalists.
The five designs were on display for a month this past fall at the Boston Public Library in Copley Square and the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal building in Dudley Square, where the public could provide comments.
English said "The Embrace" earned the highest spot from both the public and the committee. "If you look at the message behind Dr. King's preachings, a lot of it starts with love — love of family and friends and ultimately even of your enemies. 'The Embrace' is a very simple and iconic image that the committee and the public saw as representative of that core message," he said.
Justin Brown, a principal project architect at MASS Design Group, said "The Embrace" shifts the attention from the individual into action. "Rather than the one-to-one likeness and idealization of a heroic figure, the sculpture presents the Kings together, abstracting their identities and encouraging viewers instead to focus on the act, rather than the person," Brown and Michael Murphy, the founding principal and executive director of MASS Design Group, wrote in an email.
The point, they wrote, is not to remember, but to spur collective action.
In his proposal, Thomas said he was also inspired by Coretta and Martin locked together leading civil rights marches. "In evoking the love shared between the Kings, their commitment to each other, and their ideals, 'The Embrace' is overwhelmingly simple and accessible: it is about what we share, not what sets us apart," the proposal states.
A bronze sculpture could be perceived as one of the most tradition-bound of the five final proposals, some of which included sloped stone sculptures, two towers with bell sounds and a walkway with a 30-foot fountain.
But this isn't the bronzed likeness of a war veteran or someone on a pedestal, said Brown. Unlike the other patinated bronze memorials in the Common, "The Embrace" will be constructed of stainless steel with a mirror finish bronze (which King Boston said it vetted to ensure it can withstand New England's changing weather) that will allow spectators to see their reflections.
Thomas hopes the reflection will encourage viewers to see themselves as part of the continued legacy of the Kings' work. “The viewer is not looking in, but looking at themselves. I hope people go to it with the intention of reflecting on their role in society and how their role plays into creating the world they want," the artist said.
Thematically, "The Embrace" also differs significantly from other public art at the city's main park. "Many of the memorials on the Common are about military victory and in that way are memorials to violence. We wanted this to be a memorial to non-violence," wrote Brown.
Located on a crossroads in the Common and on a gentle incline, the sculpture will abutt two gathering spaces. A northern plaza faces the State House to one side and on the other side, a southern amphitheater that faces the Parkman Bandstand where King addressed the Common in April 1965. Both of these spaces are supposed to be able to hold small or large gatherings, according to Willis' proposal.
Brown said Thomas and MASS Design Group chose the location in part "to reorient two awkward and less landscaped locations in the Common," where paths overlap in a confusing manner. "The Embrace," they hope, will create a new center of congregation and "fix some of the incongruity of the Common itself."
English says design and construction of "The Embrace" could take up to 12 to 18 months.
In addition to the Boston Common memorial, King Boston's plan calls for an educational center in Roxbury to train activists, a $1 million endowment for MLK-inspired programming at Twelfth Baptist Church, where Dr. King preached while he lived in Boston, and a documentary by Roberto Mighty.
Other King memorials throughout the country honor only the preacher. King Boston aims to honor the legacy of both MLK and Coretta Scott King. The two met in 1952 when King Jr. was a student at Boston University's School of Theology and Coretta Scott was at the New England Conservatory of Music. Her legacy is often tethered to his but she was an activist in her own right who had already traveled overseas advocating for world peace by the time the pair met. Boston is where the two fell in love and began their life as newlyweds.
Erecting a memorial honoring both of them is long overdue, said Thomas.
" 'The Embrace' is focusing on a different element of his legacy. The root of all the work he did was the relationship with his wife."
This segment aired on March 4, 2019.