This week’s federal holiday honoring the humanitarian work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. commemorates not only the myriad accomplishments he made during his short life but, for the first time, highlights the construction and installation of a long-awaited memorial to him on the Tidal Basin. The memorial is massive. It has to be, in order to complement and compete with the other heroic monuments honoring Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and those who fought in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.
Like those, it is not without controversy: location, funding, design, artistic control, etc. Unlike previous Januarys, this year’s MLK Day is the first time the memorial can be seen as more than a maquette. I am looking forward to seeing the monument, since the maquette is what I saw when I visited the sculptor, Master Lei Xi Yin, in his studio in Changsha, China, in September 2009. The visit was unexpected, since it was a last minute addition to a very full schedule prepared by our provincial government hosts for 2009 Hunan International Tourism Festival. As we climbed up the narrow and dark steps to Master Lei’s studio that evening, I had no idea that Washington, D.C. and Changsha, China, would be linked so closely, and that I was stepping into a remarkable story in the history of global relations.
The second floor studio was filled with a variety of artworks frozen in time: a bust of a young Chairman Mao, a bright red tabletop sculpture of stylized figures pushing another figure to the top of a human pyramid, a life-size bronze statue of a worker in native dress, with details so real that I started to apologize when I brushed by it. Across the room were three gigantic heads of Martin Luther King, Jr., which had served as models for the final sculpture. Master Lei joked that these were the ones that did not make the cut. A small granite and bronze model of the entire sculpture was explained by Master Lei: two sides of a mountain, with a third “slice” in the middle moved slightly ahead of the other two. The commissioned memorial represents a line from a Dr. King speech: to take a stone of hope from the mountain of despair. Master Lei said that he planned to present the maquette to President Obama when the memorial is dedicated.
Master Lei invited us to look around his studio, and I noticed that his office was covered with photos and posters of Dr. King. Master Lei said they provided inspiration for the long days and nights of work. There was a simple cot with bedding rolled up, and it was obvious that he spent a lot of time here. Our group of a dozen or so visitors moved down a short hall to a modern set of glass-walled offices. Master Lei sat down at a computer, and soon we were watching an aerial video tour of the Tidal Basin that he had prepared for his commission bid. Since the tour was nearly in my backyard, I added some commentary for my global traveling companions, much to Master Lei’s bemusement.
In later conversation, Master Lei expressed frustration with American security requirements that were holding up the installation schedule. When I got home, I discovered that the National Park Service had added some requirements that created “artistic differences.” At my request, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which I chaired that year, sent a letter to the National Park and Planning Commission and, a couple of weeks later, I learned that the issues had been resolved. A few months later, Master Lei sent me an autographed book about his work. It is a treasure, and I look forward to the dedication of the memorial to Dr. King this summer.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be e-mailed at [email protected]