Hurricane-dampened MLK memorial plans have a St. Paul connection

Martin Luther King Jr. by Chinese artist Lei Yixin
The "Stone of Hope" sculpture of Martin Luther King by Chinese artist Lei Yixin is open to the public on August 22, 2011 at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC. The memorial is the first on the National Mall to honor an African-American and the first to honor a person who did not serve as president. The George Washington Monument is seen in the background.

Organizers of Sunday's planned dedication for the new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the Capitol Mall in Washington D.C. have postponed the event because of Hurricane Irene. Huge crowds were anticipated for the event, and with the storm bearing down on the East Coast, officials decided to err on the side of caution.

Those disappointed by the turn of events included a delegation from St Paul, which has a special connection to the MLK memorial: Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin.

"It's unlike visiting any memorial I've ever been to before," said Christine Podas Larson, president of public art in St. Paul. "I feel this very strong connection to it."

And she was pleased to hear that connection mentioned when she joined the throngs of people already visiting the memorial, and overhearing a park ranger talking to a tour group.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

"And I listened for a minute, and I said, 'Wait a minute that's our story coming out of the mouth of the U.S. Park Service.' And he said they found the sculptor at a stone carving symposium in St. Paul, Minn., in 2006."

In May and June of that year, Public Art St. Paul sponsored the Minnesota Rocks symposium on the grounds of the St. Paul Technical College. They invited 14 master carvers from around the world to make pieces using stone from quarries around the state. (Read MPR's coverage of the Minnesota Rocks symposium here.)

What they didn't know was the Martin Luther King Foundation had been searching for years for a sculptor who could complete their plan for a Washington memorial. They hadn't found anyone.

Chinese artist Lei Yixin
Chinese artist Lei Yixin arrives for a news conference during a press preview August 22, 2011 at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC. Lei's sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr, the "Stone of Hope", is the centerpiece of the memorial. The memorial is the first on the National Mall to honor an African-American and the first to honor a person who did not serve as president.

"They happened to see our Minnesota Rocks website and then read a big article in the Wall Street Journal about our international stone carving symposium," Podas Larson recalls. "And within 24 hours three people from the committee got on a plane and came to St. Paul, and just showed up. They didn't tell anyone they were coming."

Larson remembers they stuck out a little amidst all the dust and tools of the work in progress.

"They were beautifully dressed, I do remember this. They had gorgeous suits and beautiful shoes," she said. "And that was like Stonehenge on a hot, hot day."

The committee members arrived just after lunch, and it turned out all but one of the artists were actually taking postprandial naps. The one artist awake was Peter Morales, a Guatemalan sculptor now based in St. Paul.

"It's unlike visiting any memorial I've ever been to before."

"And they said to him, 'Are you are artist?'" Podas Larson said. "And they explained who they were. And at first he thought, 'This can't be real.'"

Then the visitors showed Morales the maps and drawings of the huge project they planned. He began thinking of the other artists at the symposium.

"And he said, 'Hmm, you know, I'm not your artist. But your artist is here. We just have to go wake him up,'" said Podas Larson.

Morales led the group to Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin, who was dozing in the shade of his piece called "Meditation." The complication was Lei doesn't speak English. Podas Larson said fate intervened when their translator turned up by chance.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial
Journalists tour the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial three hours before the general public was given access to the newest memorial on the National Mall August 22, 2011 in Washington, DC. Fifteen years after Congress authorized the memorial, the 30-foot-tall statue of the American civil rights pioneer will be dedicated on August 28, the 48th anniversary of King's historic "I Have A Dream" speech.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

"They started explaining to the artist Lei what this was about and they all seemed to agree that this was something he could do," Podas Larson said. "And I worked with Betty McCollum to get his visa extended so he could go to Washington. By the time that summer was over he had this commission."

Lei Yixin returned to China where he is known as Master Lei for his carving skills. But Podas Larson says the sculptor remained in touch, even sending them a signed piece of stone from the King sculpture.

And there was another connection in 2008 after vandals spray-painted racist slurs on Lei's "Meditation" sculpture after it had been moved to Phalen Park in St. Paul. A community effort led to the cleaning of the piece and a rededication ceremony. Podas Larson kept Lei abreast of what was happening. Ultimately he forgave the vandals. (Read MPR's coverage of the vandalization here.)

"The message he sent from China was quoting King about how darkness cannot chase out darkness, only light can do that," Podas Larson said.

She's awed by the visual power of the King sculpture in Washington.

"You enter it through this mountain," she said. "It's a 30-feet tall mountain in several pieces. And only when you get to the end of it, and you are looking out at the Jefferson Memorial across the Tidal Basin, do you get to the big, full 30-feet-tall figurative sculpture. So it's that figure, but it's so much more."

Podas Larson had dinner with Lei and his family last night, and the Public Art St. Paul visitors are VIP guests of the MLK Memorial committee. Sunday's dedication has now been postponed until maybe as late as October. But Podas Larson says they will all be there when it happens - including Lei Yixin.