KCK native who became first black astronaut now soars as artist
By ALICE THORSON - The Kansas City Star
As a young man, Ed Dwight made history as the first African-American to train as an astronaut. That was in 1962, under the John F. Kennedy administration.
Today the Kansas City, Kan., native enjoys a different kind of fame. Over the last 3 1/2 decades he has built a national reputation as a sculptor of public works.
As the first black astronaut, Dwight made the covers of Ebony and Jet magazines and appeared in publications around the world. As an artist, he has devoted himself to chronicling the contributions of other black Americans to history.
Dwight’s celebration of African-American achievement includes dozens of bronze sculptures and paintings of jazz superstars. Many of them can be seen in a new exhibit at the American Jazz Museum, which will hold a public reception for the artist from 6 to 9 tonight.
Dwight’s best-known works include a memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. in Denver’s City Park; an African-American history monument on the Capitol grounds in Columbia, S.C.; and a memorial to the Underground Railroad in Detroit and adjacent Windsor, Ontario.
He recently completed a life-size grouping of President Barack Obama and his family called “The Inauguration of Hope.”
His new exhibit, “The Evolution of Jazz,” grew out of a conversation between Dwight and childhood friend Elmer Jackson, the chairman of the Jazz Museum’s board. Jackson lived across the street from Dwight when the two were growing up in Kansas City, Kan.
Earlier this year, the museum’s visiting curator, Sonie Ruffin, flew to Denver, where she chose 47 sculptures and 10 paintings from the artist’s 25,000-square-foot studio in a former airplane hangar.
Ruffin has organized the exhibit to tell the story of jazz from its beginnings in the beat of African drums to its development as a high art form in the hands of Charlie “Bird” Parker, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong and many others.
Dwight, 77, knew many of the artists he has portrayed, including Parker, whose boyhood home was four blocks from Dwight’s, and Lionel Hampton.
In a recent interview, Dwight recalled going to concerts at Municipal Auditorium when he was 10 or 11 years old with money he’d saved from his paper route.
“I’d go at 7 and sit right in front of the stage,” he said, a close-up experience that gave him memories beyond the music. “Lionel Hampton and Billy Eckstine used to ‘spit’ in my hair.”
Many of the works in the exhibit feature Dwight’s unique “negative space” mode of portrayal, in which he focuses solely on the essentials: the performer’s head, hands and instrument.
The idea came to him one morning, Dwight said, when the light coming through the transom of his studio highlighted only parts of his works.
“I cut away everything that the light wasn’t shining on and poured wax (molds).”
He did 10 of them, each in an edition of 10, and when he showed them, he said, “they sold out in 30 minutes.”
One of the most striking works in his exhibit features a keyboard being played by a pair of disembodied hands. It’s a portrait of Eubie Blake, a ragtime pianist who played well into his 90s.
Dwight’s aptitude as an artist surfaced in kindergarten and continued through high school. He received a scholarship to the Kansas City Art Institute, but his father, Ed Dwight Sr., who played second base for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues, had other ideas.
“Dad talked me into engineering and flying,” he said.