The Gateway to Freedom sculpture by Ed Dwight, Riverside, downtown Detroit. Photograph: Alamy

The Gateway to Freedom sculpture by Ed Dwight, Riverside, downtown Detroit. Photograph: Alamy

Ed Dwight shows ‘the angst, all the emotions’ of black heroes in sculpture

Picked by JFK to be America’s first black astronaut, Dwight found a second career as a sculptor, memorialising in grand public artworks the struggle for civil rights

AM Brune

Thursday 28 May 2015 07.00 EDT

In nearly 40 years of imagining clay into models and casting models to bronze, sculptor Ed Dwight has amassed not only a significant body of work, but also a sizeable library to inform his concepts.

It contains neither volumes of masters Bernini or Brunelleschi, Rodin nor Remington. Rather, it holds narratives of American black history, with anecdotes both well-known and overlooked by both the general public and even the patrons who pay for Dwight’s work.

Yet Dwight still finds stories beyond the books to tell in three dimensions: the legend of Denmark Vesey, whose 1822 slave revolt led to the founding of the Citadel in South Carolina; the saga of Sam McCullough, a free black man who fought first for the liberation of Texas from Mexico, then land rights for his fellow black men; and the tale of a slave owner who gave her land to an abolitionist to form a university in Virginia.

 Statue of Rosa Parks by Ed Dwight at Grand Rapids. Photograph: PR

“There’s always a fine line that divides hostility from neutrality, and I don’t want to pass that line,” Dwight says from his studio in Denver, Colorado. “But sometimes the happy endings on my sculptures have two meanings: the white folks come away thinking ‘Hey, we fixed something; things are now cool,’ while the black folks know we transcended, that we overcame; we won the game.”

Although nearly 82, Dwight doesn’t feel as if he can retire anytime soon. At work at six or seven commissions at a time in his 30,000 sq ft studio, he has crafted more than 120 memorials, monuments and public art installations, as well as some 18,000 gallery sculptures ranging from seven statues of Martin Luther King; to Hank Aaron in full home-run swing at the Braves Stadium in Atlanta; to several renderings of Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad.

All of these were textbook, according to Dwight – a requirement of the American public art canon. His works of the past 15 years have quietly subverted it.

Dwight has just come from Richmond, Virginia, where he unveiled his latest work, a lengthy and detailed memorial to commemorate the 150th anniversary ofVirginia Union University. The institution was formed when Mary Lumpkin, the freed black widow of scorned slave dealer, donated a slave jail to help Nathaniel Colver, an ageing, abolitionist Baptist minister, train newly freed slaves as clergy.

The sculptor will soon finish, for the state capitol in Austin, a monument to Texas black history which – on panels to the right and left of the centerpiece of a man and woman breaking the chains of slavery – show pre- and post-emancipation events beginning with the arrival of Estevanico de Dorantes, the first African to set foot on Texas soil, through the election of Barbara Jordan, the first southern black woman elected to US Congress.

 African American History Monument by Ed Dwight, State Capitol Grounds, Columbia, South Carolina. Photograph: Alamy

 African American History Monument by Ed Dwight, State Capitol Grounds, Columbia, South Carolina. Photograph: Alamy

A shift in Dwight’s work came in the late 1990s, when he “got exercised of the idea of all this black history is lost and that nobody wanted to talk about it”. With the South Carolina African American History Monument, installed in Columbia, Dwight depicted tormented slaves on auction blocks in early 17th-century Charleston and included a section called Middle Passage, which highlighted the port city’s role in facilitating 40% of the slave trade in America.

“White people visit the memorials out of curiosity and see it in visual form versus written words. They find it unbelievable,” Dwight said. “But I have to show the angst, all the emotions, so people can get a sense of placing themselves in that position. I can’t abstract pain and suffering.”

Dwight soon took up the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 in a commission he received from the state of Oklahoma to commemorate one of the deadliest race riots in history, which resulted in the killing of more than 300 black people and the razing of the thriving Greenwood business and cultural district. Dwight built a 25ft Tower of Reconciliation, which portrays the history of black people in Oklahoma from their relationship with Native Americans on the Trail of Tears to a “climb” to freedom.

The tower stands just past three bronze figures, all sculpted from photographs of the riot: a white gunman, a black man surrendering to the white marshals and a Red Cross worker holding a rescued baby. At night, the tower is lit from the bottom with an orange hue – a significant flare that marks a separation between North Tulsa, traditionally inhabited by black people, and South Tulsa, the largely white district.

“We wanted to project that we have this history and that somehow African Americans are forgotten about – that the true story is not told very often,” said Julius Pegues, the chairman of the John Hope Franklin Center of Reconciliation, which raised an additional $1.3m for the center when the state balked on fully funding the $5m work.

Shortly after the unveiling of Tulsa, Dwight set to work on another monument in South Carolina, this time in Charleston, to memorialize the life of Denmark Vesey. Vesey, who bought his freedom in 1799, was hanged with 34 other black people in the largest civil execution in US history for planning an insurrection in 1822 that would have liberated hundreds of slaves and transported them to the newly freed Republic of Haiti.

“African American history has been so marginalised, it’s as if we made no contributions to the state of South Carolina,” said Henry Darby, a member of the Charleston County council who helped see the 18-year effort to fruition. “Whites want to tell us who to have as a hero; we want to select our own hero. We want more monuments to African Americans and we have a long way to go in South Carolina.”

Until the late 1970s, Dwight said he “walked around like a white guy in dark skin” and knew little about black history. Originally from Kansas City, he joined the US air force in 1953, where he served as a fighter pilot and was appointed by President John F Kennedy to train as the country’s first black astronaut. He left in 1966, he said, after racial politics forced him out of Nasa and back into the regular officer corps.

An engineer by profession and by the 1970s an IBM sales executive and successful construction entrepreneur, Dwight occasionally “built things with scrap metal”, but harboured no serious artistic intent until Colorado’s first black lieutenant governor, George Brown, asked Dwight to create his statue for the state capitol building in 1974. When he finished the job, at age 45, Dwight enrolled at the university of Denver to earn an MFA in sculpture and embark on a second career memorialising black heroes – a role that hadn’t yet been filled as the US emerged from two decades of civil rights unrest.

 Ed Dwight: ‘I walked around like a white guy in dark skin’. Photograph: Ed Dwight

“The lieutenant governor had a big plan for me and my life. He said blacks have done all this wonderful stuff and nobody is recording [it],” Dwight said. “He told me to drop all these different things I was doing and chronicle what happened to black folks in this country.

“I thought ‘Who cares?’ And he said, ‘The world will care if you do it right.’”

At one point, Dwight, who helps many organisations find funding for the memorials, tried to form a consortium of black artists to continue the work as the commissions continue to arrive, but couldn’t reach a consensus on its direction. Most of his bronzes have covered only the specific, early eras of black history in the US – slavery, emancipation and post-reconstruction – leaving dozens of stories still to tell as generations of Americans continue to grapple with race relations.

“White folks have said if we do this or that memorial, people are going to think we’re animals. And black folks have felt if the memorials show too much, the white folks will be mad and they will suffer repercussions,” Dwight said. “I try to be a realist about the situation; my work is really just about the flow of ironies.”