Martin as Muse

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

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.

Kim, 60, not only got away unscathed but managed to gather valuable knowledge about orchids and bring home scores of rare specimens, compliments of Brazilian environmentalists.

As the Smithsonian’s orchid specialist, Kim has gone to Brazil, a country hospitable to a wide variety of the plants, four times to study these astonishingly beautiful and diverse flowers. They grow at sea level to as high as 14,000 feet, in hot and cool, and moist and dry climates. Their exotic blooms can be as small as a fingertip or as big as a dinner plate. One species spikes four feet out of a sand dune while another grows happily on volcanic rock. Because collecting is discouraged or prohibited by most governments, Kim photographs the rarest finds. The plants often fall prey to deforestation or to poachers who sell them on the black market. "They bring the orchids out of that very special natural environment which man can’t duplicate exactly, and 90 percent of them die," says Kim. Of the more than 30,000 different species in the world, the Smithsonian collection includes about 750 (some 7,500 plants in all), which Kim and other Institution horticulturists propagate in greenhouses a few miles from the Mall.

From January 19 to April 8, 2002, orchid lovers will have an opportunity to view many of the Smithsonian’s species, as well as others, at the Smithsonian and U.S. Botanic Garden’s annual orchid show in Washington, D.C. "It’s beautiful and also very educational," Kim says. "You can learn about the different varieties and take classes."

In addition to tending the Institution’s orchids, Kim also creates lush floral arrangements for the Sackler Gallery of Asian art. Once or twice a week, through a special endowment from museum benefactor Else Sackler, he deftly manipulates flowers, vines, berries and other flora into a striking profusion of color for the stark granite lobby. Trained in ikebana, the characteristically spare art of Japanese flower arranging, Kim, who was born in Japan of Chinese and Korean parentage, discovered to his dismay that most Americans prefer "big bouquets instead of one or two flowers in a vase." Before coming to the Smithsonian, he tried to make a living from his ikebana skills. "But people said, ‘What! You charge that much for three flowers?’ They didn’t get it." At the Smithsonian, Kim’s displays of live orchids rooted on tree ferns, bark or other natural mediums rival ikebana’s artistry, their blooms brightening niches and entryways at the various museums.

Passionate about plants since he was a child, Kim cites the Asian tradition of placing several objects—a musical instrument, abacus or book, for instance—before a baby. The object the infant picks, it is believed, suggests his future profession.

"I picked a paintbrush," Kim says, smiling. Pointing proudly to his latest colorful creation in the lobby of the Sackler, he adds, "And this is my canvas."

—Michael Kernan

Poetic Justice
Tribute to Langston Hughes

One day in 1925 aspiring poet Langston Hughes saw an opportunity. Across the dining room of Washington, D.C.’s Wardman Park Hotel, where the 23-year-old Hughes was working as a busboy, he spotted Vachel Lindsay, who was scheduled to give a reading at the hotel that evening. Hughes sidled over to Lindsay, dropped three of his own poems next to the acclaimed poet’s plate and dashed back to the kitchen.

A few hours later, Lindsay informed his audience that he had discovered a bona fide poet right there at the hotel, and he proceeded to read Hughes’ work. The story of the discovery of this gifted "Negro poet" was picked up by both local newspapers and the Associated Press. And though Hughes had recently signed a deal with Alfred A. Knopf to publish his first collection, The Weary Blues, the ensuing publicity was the kind most struggling writers only dream about.

Over his 65-year life span, Hughes, one of America’s most enduring writers and a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, would publish hundreds of poems, plus novels, short stories, autobiographies, librettos, essays and children’s books. To honor the centennial of his birth, February 1, the U.S. Postal Service is issuing a commemorative stamp, and the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, in Washington, D.C., will feature a small exhibition on his life and achievements (February 1 to August 2, 2002).

"His originality was to link his poetry to African-American vernacular speech and also jazz and blues," says Arnold Rampersad, author of a two-volume biography, The Life of Langston Hughes, "and in that respect he was quite different from the poets before him."

Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri. His parents—Carrie, an amateur actress, and James, a stenographer for a mining company—were estranged at the time of his birth. Langston grew up, for the most part, with his maternal grandmother in Lawrence, Kansas. When he moved to New York to attend Columbia University in 1921, he was dazzled by the vibrant Harlem community, which would inspire much of his work.

"He had to represent the voiceless," says Maryemma Graham, a professor of English at the University of Kansas and co-organizer of a Hughes symposium at the college beginning January 31. "He was a poet of the people."

The Postal Museum display includes a first edition of Hughes’ One-Way Ticket, a 1949 collection of poems pulsating with the rhythms of urban streets and vividly illustrated by Jacob Lawrence’s black-and-white drawings. One of the rarest items on view is a copy of the 1926 literary journal Fire!!, which published only one issue and showcased Hughes’ work along with that of Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen and other young Harlem writers.

In a stirring 1926 essay, Hughes championed his black compatriots for boldly expressing their "dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. . . . We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves."

—Michele Wolf

Catharsis and Comfort

A month after September 11, a wooden construction barrier shielding ongoing renovations at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. evolved into a block-long mural commemorating the victims of that fateful day.

Paintbrushes became tools for coping with grief as some 60 museum staffers—from curators and conservators to technicians and secretaries—gathered at lunchtime for nearly two weeks to create a colorful, fitting memorial wall.

With its Stars and Stripes motif and such familiar icons as Lady Liberty’s lamp and a Gilbert Stuart-style George Washington, the mural fairly pulsates with patriotism. One scene depicts a multicultural group of people under the protective wings of an eagle. Victims are remembered with images of hearts, candles, peace symbols and delicate flowers.

"We brainstormed about what might be cathartic for us and would help comfort those around us," says Katie Murphy, one of the coordinators for the project.

American Art Museum conservator Quentin Rankin was painting a weeping willow shading a gravestone when a group of women stopped to watch him work. One told him that a friend’s 11-year-old daughter was on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. So Rankin inscribed the girl’s name—Asia Cottom—on the painting’s gravestone. "I wasn’t going to put a name on it," he says, "but this will be a memorial to her."

Rankin’s longtime neighbor, pilot David Charlebois, was also on the doomed Pentagon plane. Tom Irion, a technician in the conservation department at American Art, painted a gravestone in Charlebois’s memory. "My heart was broken for these people," says Irion. "Here was my chance to say something through the skill I have."

—Paulette Dininny

Tags

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus