WOONSOCKET — If all goes according to plan, a prominent traffic island will soon feature a permanent display of public art honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and his message of racial tolerance.
The unique display at the junction of Mason and South Main streets will depict a likeness of the slain civil rights leader ministering to a half-dozen children and adults. The figures are reminiscent of the pop-up silhouettes of storybook art, except in this case they’ll be carved from thick plate steel and slightly bigger than life size, weighing hundreds of pounds each.
With the exception of the King figure, which will be black, the others will be painted in a rainbow of neon-bright hues, including two children (purple and white) holding hands.
“They’re going to catch people’s eye,” said Carol Wilson-Allen of the MLK Community Committee. “And hopefully when people see it they’re going to think about the unity that Dr. King stood for, bringing communities and all persons together, no matter what color they are.”
A plywood mockup of the planned exhibit will be unveiled publicly for the first time at its intended spot during an outdoor King Day tribute at 10 a.m. on Monday. The mockups will also be shown Friday night at an MLK Celebration Banquet at Savini’s Restaurant, for which tickets are being sold.
The project was commissioned by St. James Baptist Church, the largest predominantly African-American congregation in the city, located across the street from the site of the planned tribute. For design and technical support, they looked to RiverzEdge Arts Project, an award-winning after-school enrichment program for students pursuing arts-related careers.
“St. James was looking to do something special for Martin Luther King Day,” said Brad Fesmire, project manager for RiverzEdge. “Within five minutes of seeing the site, I had the idea for what I was going to do.”
Fesmire said Neighborworks Blackstone River Valley and Margaux Morisseau, its director of community building, St. James Deacon Tom Gray, Woonsocket Police Chief Tom Carey and the Woonsocket Rotary, were instrumental in bringing the project to fruition. He said Neighborworks helped obtain seed money from the charitable Citizens Bank Foundation to get the project off the ground.
Fesmire said it will take about $12,000 to create all seven figures, but there is only enough money on hand at the moment to finish perhaps three – hopefully by spring.
Completing all the figures contained in the plan will require a continued fundraising effort, he said.
IN PARTNERSHIP with The Steel Yard, a non-profit training center in Providence dedicated to metals trades, RiverzEdge made a splash not long ago with its uniquely innovative bike racks, made from twisty strips of brightly-painted steel that looked more like abstract art than traditional sidewalk hookups for bicycles.
Though the bicycle racks were seemingly indestructible and bolted to the concrete with muscular fasteners, vandals managed to pry some away from their anchors or otherwise damage them.
Unless they’re using bulldozers, vandals won’t find Dr. King and his flock such easy targets. Fesmire said each of the silhouettes will be made from ¾-inch plate steel. They’ll weigh 600 to 700 pounds each and be anchored deep into the ground by heavy-gauge steel posts set in concrete.
Fesmire said the paint will be protected by a vandal-resistant coating that will inhibit foreign pigments from sticking and make graffiti easy to remove.
“Once they’re in the ground they’re not going anywhere,” said Fesmire. “They’re going to be very hard to damage or destroy.”
Fesmire said he’ll use his contacts at The Steel Yard to find a tradesman with the specialized skills and equipment needed to cut the silhouettes out of steel. He said the work will be done by a computer-controlled machine that uses a thin stream of water blasted at exceedingly high pressure to slice the steel.
After the figures are cut, they’ll be painted by students enrolled at RiverzEdge.
The silhouettes would have been more lightweight and easier to work with if they were made from aluminum, but also more costly, said Fesmire.
“I wanted to do something a little lighter and go with aluminum, but it would have doubled the price,” he said. “Steel’s the way to go.”
To create a plausible likeness of King, Fesmire said popular images were pulled off the internet and manipulated through the graphic design program Photoshop to create a cutting template for the silhouettes. The patterns for the other figures were drawn from “random images” found online, Fesmire said.
As a whole, the silhouettes are to be laid out on the streetscape in a way that suggests they have been drawn in to a sermon being delivered by Dr. King, who appears to be gesturing in the animated fashion of his fiery, oratorical style.
The work is both a celebration of diversity and a reminder that, as always, King’s words are still a force for harmony in a world of diversity, according to Fesmire.
“Dr. King’s message lives on and endures,” he says. “Everyone can come together and listen and learn from the message of Dr. King.”