For artist Basil Watson, the unveiling of his commissioned Martin Luther King, Jr. statue will truly be coming full circle. Watson was commissioned by the City of Atlanta to create a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. to be placed on MLK Boulevard in downtown Atlanta near Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Watson was chosen over 80 other applicants who vied for this honor, and his work will be given a celebratory public unveiling, possibly in October, in downtown Atlanta.
Watson, born in Jamaica, but a Lawrenceville-based artist and sculptor for almost two decades, comes from a family of celebrated artists, including his father, Barrington Watson. The senior Watson is widely celebrated and recognized in Jamaica as one of the fathers of modern art.
His father graduated from the Royal College of Art in London and was the first black and West Indian to attend the prestigious university. Watson later became a professor at Spelman College, where he painted acclaimed paintings of historical black figures, including Martin Luther King, Jr (1970). In turn, Dr. King, a frequent visitor to Jamaica, was captivated by Jamaica’s multi-racial, welcoming nation. Worn down by the civil rights battle, he stated, “In Jamaica, I feel like a human being.”
Watson works from a non-descript studio near Briscoe Field in Lawrenceville, the interior, however, is anything but. It is full of emotional, evocative sculptures, almost all of them a celebration of the nude human form. Scattered through Watson’s studio are framed and unframed, pen and ink drawings, many the precursor to the clay sculptures crowding the room. Eyes are immediately drawn to a smaller cast of the final King sculpture, which will stand 22-feet high and is currently being cast at Inferno Foundry in Atlanta. Watson has beautifully captured the intense gaze of Dr. King, yet the sculpture is decidedly a celebration of his passion for peace, with his extended hand holding a dove.
Gracious and quiet, Watson took the time to answer questions not only about his process, but also his local picks for inspiration and good food.
Q: Emigrating from Jamaica, how did Gwinnett become your destination?
A: “We moved in 2002, and a friend of my son Kai (yet another Watson artist!) lived here and helped us settle in Gwinnett. Atlanta has a thriving Jamaican community, the third largest in the nation.”
Q: How did you decide on your artistic interpretation of Dr. King for this sculpture?
A: “I studied his photos and listened to dozens of speeches. Slowly my concept evolved to the theme of ‘the redemptive power of love.’ Eventually the dove appeared, coming from King’s hand, symbolic of both the man and his core message.”
Q: What is your role throughout the process?
A: From beginning to end, I am 100% involved. From digitally scanning the half size life model in the beginning to the construction, casting and design of the pedestal from which Dr. King’s sculpture will be unveiled.
Q: Almost all your works celebrate the human form. Movement, gesture and emotions are notoriously hard to capture. What is your process?
A: “I prefer to use models. From original concept to final piece, it is a critical process, and I almost never have a final visualization. I solve one problem and move to the next. I am almost always emotionally entangled, but rarely fully satisfied with my final work.”
Q: Drawing is an integral form of your sculpting process. Which is more important to you, and if you had to pick one……
A: “Drawing is the spear of the arrow; and sculpture is the statement. Pick one? Drawing.”
Q: What current figure inspires you?
A: “Even before his recent passing, Congressman John Lewis. For so many reasons – his spirit, passion, commitment to civil rights and ability to bridge disparate communities.”
Q: Last question. You have visitors in town. Where do you take them for the best Jamaican food around?
A: Jay’s Caribbean Cuisine, just down the street on Hurricane Shoals Rd. Best in Atlanta. They treat me very well.