Handpainted MLK statues debut on Philly streets

Students at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Perfoming arts designed sculptures that will be installed throughout the city for Martin Luther King Day.

Students at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Perfoming arts designed sculptures that will be installed throughout the city for Martin Luther King Day. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

On Friday, a series of six-foot statues of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. will appear in various places around Philadelphia, and remain through February. Each has been hand-painted by high school artists with their own interpretation of the civil rights hero.

It was Comcast’s idea to fabricate nine fiberglass busts on pedestals — each weighing about 120lbs — to install around Philadelphia. The cable giant has done projects in the past to mark MLK milestones: in 2013, on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Comcast created the online oral history portal voicesofthecivilrightsmovement.com.

The statues, which are only appearing in Philadelphia, where Comcast is headquartered, are rolling out in the year marking the 50th anniversary year of King’s assassination. Each statue is accompanied by a plaque with a quote from King.

“They’re Dr. King’s words, but what you see here in the artwork is these kids seeing those words and saying, ‘I’m an embodiment of that, and an owner of that, and here is my contribution,’ ” said Bret Perkins, Comcast vice president of external and government relations.

Comcast partnered with several youth organizations: Girard College, Big Brother Big Sister, Art-Reach, the Overbrook School for the Blind and, most prominently, the Philadelphia’s High School of Creative and Performing Arts on Broad Street, where the statues were unveiled on Thursday.

The statues were hand painted by students at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Perfoming Arts.
The statues were hand painted by students at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Perfoming Arts. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

Many of the figures interpret King’s words literally: “No person has the right to rain on your dreams” is illustrated with storm clouds. Some have more symbolic takes. One team decorated the figure’s suit jacket with dark purple thorns growing into bright sunflowers and lilies.

“That represents MLK planting seed for that growth,” said artist Eric Nguyen, standing in front of the purple, yellow, and lime green figure encircled with flowering vines. “It reminds me of Philly vibes, like the Magic Garden. It gives a mosaic feel to the statue.”

Another team from CAPA painted a statue in bold patterns and bright colors, reminiscent of the African textiles used by the international contemporary artist Yinka Shonibare. The high school students piggybacked on Shonibare’s use of the textiles as part of a critique of African colonialism and cultural appropriation.

“Shonibare used the colonial piece to show how colonialism affected Africa, and how it still affects African-Americans today,” said senior visual arts major Collecia Smith. “It was social commentary, so we decided to bring that out in our piece.”

The nine fiberglass statues will be distributed to eight locations: the African-American Museum, Temple University, the Kimmel Center, City Hall, the Betsy Ross House, Philadelphia School District headquarters building, Comcast headquarters, and two at the Philadelphia Art Museum.

They will remain through Black History Month. A spokesperson said Comcast has not yet determined what the do with the figures after February; they may be auctioned off with proceeds donated to yet unnamed recipients.

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