‘The Embrace’ chosen as King monument on Common

Sculpture of arms embracing was most popular with public

THE NONPROFIT KING BOSTON has selected a sculpture featuring two pairs of arms in an embrace as the winning design for a monument on Boston Common to Rev. Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King, a couple who met in Boston in the 1950s and then nurtured a transformational civil rights movement.

The art committee of King Boston last week chose The Embrace, a polished metal sculpture that blends realism and abstraction as it depicts the couple’s disembodied, loving arms holding one another. The official announcement will be made on Monday.

The monument will be built near the Parkman Bandstand, according to the artists’ submission. It was one of 126 entries to a contest announced in December 2017 and one of three finalists, whittled down from five top choices announced last June.

The winning design was a collaboration between the Brooklyn-based studios of artist Hank Willis Thomas and the MASS Design Group, a non-profit, civic-minded architecture firm located across the street from the Public Garden. Thomas said the 20-member team that came up with the concept for The Embrace settled on it because it was “the most unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.”

Thomas, who is African American, has produced a sculpture for the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, which commemorates the more than 4,000 documented racial lynchings in America after the abolition of slavery. His studio also built a giant Afro-pick sculpture that was displayed outside of Philadelphia’s city hall and represents the city’s “Black Power” movement.

“I’m very much inspired by deconstructing and complicating the traditional notions of race that have been used to divide us,” Thomas said in an interview over the weekend. “Race, it was a social construction that was a divide-and-conquer strategy, and in many ways it’s still very much at play.”

Thomas, 42, grew up in New York, and is the son of photographer Deborah Willis.

The Embrace is the most visible aspect of King Boston’s plans, which include establishing a King Center for Economic Justice in Dudley Square that would aim to bring more high-paying jobs to Boston’s historically black neighborhoods. The non-profit also plans to provide an endowment to fund guest speakers at the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, where King sermonized, and finance a librarian position for the Boston Public Library in Dudley who would provide the public with access to King’s writings, according to Marie St. Fleur, the executive director of King Boston.

While St. Fleur said the project is “a whole lot more than a statue,” she said the artwork will play an important role in the organization’s goal of bridging the “chasm” between the wealthy and largely white, touristy downtown area around the Common and the neighborhoods like Roxbury and Dorchester where black residents were segregated decades ago and which remain the bedrock of Boston’s black community today.

“The feeling of ownership that I think some folks take for granted, I don’t know that most African Americans or people of African descent feel that about the park,” said St. Fleur, a former state representative who is Haitian-American and grew up in the Upham’s Corner neighborhood of Dorchester. “Now from the Common, maybe those tourists will come up to Roxbury. Now from Roxbury, maybe those kids up on Martin Luther King Boulevard will see the Common as a place for them to go picnic.”

The arms of the sculpture will stand more than 20 feet above the ground and there will be enough room for people to stroll beneath them. Paul English, a tech entrepreneur and philanthropist who bankrolled the creation of King Boston, said he anticipated construction of the sculpture would be completed sometime next year.

The interior of The Embrace, a sculpture selected for Boston Common to honor Rev. Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King. (Image courtesy of King Boston)

 

The Embrace was deemed the most feasible during a review of the three finalists by the city. It also seemed to be the public’s favorite choice based on feedback received. And it was the top choice of the art committee, according to English, who said it was also his favorite, but he said he didn’t share his personal opinion with the art committee.

The sculpture, which will be made of stainless steel and may have a polished bronze color, will be something very new for the oldest public park in the United States, predating the founding of the nation by more than 150 years.

The last monument placed on the Common was a marker dedicated in 1981 commemorating a public Mass held two years before by Pope John Paul II.

The Embrace will be built near the Parkman Bandstand, which has played a role in African American history – presidential candidate Barack Obama and several historical figures, including King himself, have all spoken from the round structure. The location would also place The Embrace near the outdoor summer performances of Shakespeare plays.

Plans for the first new monument in the park in nearly 40 years also coincide with plans by the Friends of the Public Garden to ramp up investment in the park as a whole. The non-profit that cares for the trees and artwork in the Common, the Public Garden, and the Commonwealth Avenue Mall will be helped in that endeavor by an infusion of $28 million from the development of the Winthrop Square luxury tower that will cast shadows on the parks.

“How do you reimagine this place which has an enormous amount of history, an incredible amount of use?” asked Elizabeth Vizza, executive director of the friends group who hopes a master plan that will be undertaken by the Boston firm Weston & Sampson will help answer that question.  “It’s the heaviest used park by many orders of magnitude in the city – hundreds of permitted events.”

Upkeep in the park is expensive, according to Vizza, who said fixing up the Brewer Fountain a decade ago cost $4.5 million, and power-washing the plaza around the fountain costs $1,800 per month. She supports the creation of a King monument and hopes the friends group will be able to consult with King Boston about its plans, she said. The friends group, meanwhile, is combining forces with the National Parks Service to finance a $2.8 million refurbishment of the Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Regiment Memorial, which commemorates the Massachusetts regiment of black soldiers that fought during the Civil War.

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Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

King Boston has a fundraising goal of $12 million and has raised $6 million so far, according to St. Fleur, who runs the non-profit out of The Boston Foundation. Artists were given a budget of about $4 million for construction of the King monument and the organization plans to establish a maintenance endowment, according to English.

English, who grew up in an Irish Catholic family in West Roxbury before making millions as a software coder and then co-founder of Kayak.com, gave $1 million toward King Boston, which he founded. English launched the organization after seeing a monument to King in San Francisco – a man-made waterfall adorned with King’s words – and deciding Boston should build something for the social justice hero. The idea of a tribute to King had long been talked about in Boston, but the effort lacked a financial backer. Once English got on board the idea swiftly received the support of Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. English said he may donate more of his money toward the economic justice center in Roxbury.