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Martin as Muse

Martin as Muse

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Martin as Muse

On January 15, Martin Luther King, Jr., would have been 73 years old. His assassination April 4, 1968, sparked an outpouring of emotions around the world. For artists, those emotions materialized in a torrent of acrylics, oils, ceramics, ink and watercolors. More than 30 years later, the civil rights leader’s vision remains an inspiration for artists the world over.

In 1998 independent museum exhibition developer Gary Chassman began to identify art created in response to King’s life and legacy. "I was struck by the quantity and variety of the works," he says, "and I became committed to presenting them in a book and exhibit as a tool for education." The result is "In the Spirit of Martin: The Living Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.," an exhibition produced by Chassman’s company, Verve Editions, and coordinated by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.

Featuring 123 works by about as many different artists, the show opens January 13, 2002 at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit. A project of impressive scope and diversity, the exhibition includes works of prominent artists such as Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Norman Rockwell and Jacob Lawrence alongside those of the emerging and self-taught. The art—sculptures, collages, paintings, prints, textiles and woodcuts—is paired with excerpts from literature and historical accounts to underscore the influence of King’s achievements.

John Wilson’s 1981 charcoal drawing, Study for Martin Luther King, Jr. Monument, was a preliminary sketch for the bronze sculpture of King that now stands in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. It evokes a fragility and vulnerability not often seen in depictions of the activist, a man known for his compelling oratory. "I wasn’t concerned with getting a photographic likeness," says Wilson, "but rather a universal significance. I wanted people to be moved by the sense of this man’s connection to humanity."

A stately, more reverential likeness appears in the colorful quilt Dream 2: King and the Sisterhood by Faith Ringgold. In it, she depicts King surrounded by women who were vital to the civil rights struggle. That each artist brings his or her own unique perspective to the various renderings inspired by King is the strength of this exhibition.

A companion book, which contains 50 additional works not in the exhibition, is due this month from Tinwood Books. The show is in Detroit through July 28, then goes to Miami, Minneapolis, Brooklyn, Memphis and Montgomery before closing in March 2004.

—Angela M. Pleasants

Orchid Meister
To the Blossom Born

Studying orchids is not for the faint of heart. Smithsonian horticulturist Cheyenne Kim recalls surprising a slumbering 25-foot anaconda while doing fieldwork in a Brazilian jungle in 1998. "It was blocking our way, so my colleague threw a rotten log at what he thought was the tail, but it was the head." The snake reared its head ready to strike the nearest trespasser, who happened to be Kim taking a picture. "I’m still shaking," he says today.

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