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Sculptor Ed Dwight keeps black history alive

“I ended up hitting a niche I didn’t know was there,” sculptor Ed Dwight says of his work on black history. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

There’s a place where Martin Luther King Jr., Miles Davis and Barack Obama all hang out together, and it isn’t in the fantasy of a jazz-loving, nonviolent Democrat. It’s at the 25,000-square-foot north Denver studio of sculptor Ed Dwight (MFA ’77), who specializes in pieces on black history, from his funky sculptures of jazz musicians like Davis, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to more realistic portraits of leaders like King and Obama.

Dwight himself is part of black history—in 1962 President John F. Kennedy appointed the young Air Force jet pilot as America’s first black astronaut trainee. Dwight went through training but never made it out of the Earth’s orbit: When Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, racial politics at NASA forced Dwight out of the program.

“After the president got killed my life changed dramatically,” Dwight says. “I got appointed to the regular officer corps, which means I could have stayed in 30 years if I wanted to. But after he died, the whole thing was so controversial—I said, ‘Screw it, I’m getting out.’”

He had been interested in art at a young age, but Dwight had turned down an art school scholarship to study engineering and flight. Once his dreams of being an astronaut were behind him, he slowly returned to art, eventually teaching himself to weld and sculpt in metal. His first serious foray in the field came in 1974, when George Brown, Colorado’s first black lieutenant governor, asked Dwight to build a sculpture of him for the state capitol building. Brown challenged Dwight to quit his sales job at IBM and turn to sculpture full time, where he could document the contributions African-Americans had made to U.S. history.

“He said, ‘If you look at the United States and the history of blacks, blacks have done all this wonderful stuff—they’ve made scientific discoveries, they’ve fought in the wars—and nobody nowhere is recording this,’” Dwight says. “‘There’s nothing in the public square where you can walk into a town or even walk into Washington, D.C., and see a statue or any kind of art of any black people.’

“I said, ‘That’s crazy—what have black people done?’ I went to white schools and I didn’t know anything about black history. So he’s telling me about Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass and George Washington Carver—I was 42 years old and I had never heard of these people. And he said I was pitiful; I should be ashamed of myself.”

Dwight more than made up for his initial lack of knowledge in the years to follow, doing extensive research to create series on black cowboys, black soldiers and black athletes. He enrolled at DU’s art school at age 45 to study art history and refine his sculpting technique. As word spread about his skills, he received public art commissions including Underground Railroad memorials in Michigan and Ontario, the still-in-progress Black Revolutionary War Patriots Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the African American History Monument in Columbia, S.C.

“I found out there was something missing in the landscape of history reflecting black folks doing things,” he says. “I did this whole series on the buffalo soldiers—on black soldiers—I did another series on black cowboys, and I presented myself to the gallery system, and all these people with these massive collections didn’t know there were black cowboys or black soldiers. I ended up hitting a niche I didn’t know was there.”

At 77, Dwight is ready to retire—but not before he finishes a sculpture of Dr. King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, for the city of Allentown, Pa., and a portrait of Rosa Parks for Grand Rapids, Mich. His new exhibit The Inauguration of Hope, which celebrates the election of Barack Obama, recently was on display at the Colorado History Museum.

The exhibit—which features sculptures of Obama accepting the presidential nomination at Invesco Field during the 2008 Democratic National Convention and the Obama family during the president’s swearing-in ceremony in Washington, D.C.—is Dwight’s testament to the onward march of black history.

“It isn’t over, and that’s why I did the Obama thing,” he says. “Regardless of what you feel about Obama and his politics—screw all that. The fact of the matter is, he was the first black guy to be the president of the United States. The history is still being made.”

Click here to see a video of Ed Dwight’s studio and a photo gallery of his sculptures.

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