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The Color of Clay

As Erik Blome finalizes a campaign to help Ethiopian orphans, his statue of Martin Luther King Jr. is taken down amid racially charged controversy.

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Sculptor Erik Blome called the Reader a couple of weeks ago wondering if someone could do a story about a project he's trying to get off the ground. Blome, who has an international practice but lives and works in the Chicago area, is putting together an exhibit of art by Ethiopian orphans that he plans to tour--along with a video and photos of the orphans and information on how Americans can support or adopt them. The artwork was done in a workshop conducted by Blome's wife, Charlotte (also an artist), when she went to Addis Ababa to pick up their son Noah a year and a half ago. Adopting Noah has been an "incredible journey" for all of them, Erik says, and the need for more adoptive parents--Angelina Jolie notwithstanding--is urgent. According to conservative estimates, there are more than a million orphans in Ethiopia, and the number is climbing. Most have lost their parents to AIDS and other diseases, famine, or war, and many are living on the streets. Just 289 were adopted by Americans last year.

When the Blomes, who have a biological son, Max (now seven), first decided to adopt, they were looking at China, Russia, Guatemala--"all those places you look when you decide to adopt internationally," Erik says. Then they saw a 2002 article in the New York Times Magazine. The story, by Melissa Fay Greene, who adopted an Ethiopian child herself, cited a couple of agencies that work in the country, including Adoption Advocates International; the Blomes requested information, and the agency sent them a video. One viewing, Erik says, and "we were instantly in love with these kids." They traveled to Addis Ababa to meet Noah in February 2004 and were directed to Kidane Mehret orphanage, where, Erik says, the nuns are devoted but overwhelmed and five babies lie to a crib, many with the bloated stomachs and orange hair that result from parasites and malnutrition. Conditions in Addis Ababa were so bad, he says, "I felt guilty walking down the street in a T-shirt with a layer of fat on my body." As a condition of adopting through AAI, parents pledge to remain actively involved with the orphanages. "We were thinking, what could we do to help?" Erik says. When Charlotte returned to take Noah home, she brought along art supplies and a camera. That was in April 2004.

Meanwhile, about six months earlier, a racially charged controversy had erupted over a piece of Erik's art. After earning his MFA at Boston University and putting in a short stint as a staff member at the Terra Museum here, his career as a realistic sculptor working in bronze had taken off in a major way. He won a commission to do a head of Thurgood Marshall for the Chicago Public Library, followed by commissions for life-size and larger replicas of Wayne Gretzky (installed at LA's Staples Center), Jack Benny (for the city of Waukegan), and that scrappy group of Blackhawk players outside the United Center. He'd also done (among others) Rosa Parks for the Rosa Parks Museum and Library and a nine-foot Martin Luther King Jr. caught at a powerful moment of public oration--mouth open, arm aloft, eyes on his audience--for the Milwaukee YWCA. When the town of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, asked him to submit a proposal for a statue of King, he elected to show the leader in a more contemplative moment. The inspiration was a Bob Fitch photo of the leader taken in his office, arms crossed, pen in hand, gazing into the distance as if in thought, a picture of Gandhi hanging nearby. It's the photo on the cover of King's autobiography.

On the basis of his slides Blome was selected for the $56,000 commission. He then submitted drawings, which were approved by city officials, and made an 18-inch bronze model, which was also approved and was displayed at Rocky Mount's art center. When his full-size clay statue was complete, he says, he sent photographs of it--which he was told were approved by the city council--before he had it cast in bronze. During this process he made three trips to Rocky Mount, including one at which he gave a public lecture. With so many steps of approval he didn't anticipate any major problems.

What he didn't realize, he says now, was that the statue--commissioned by a majority-white city council and long-standing white mayor, under the supervision of white city employees--would become a lightning rod for the problems of a town deeply divided along racial lines. Soon after he installed the piece in June 2003, complaints began to surface; the local paper reported that some people didn't think it looked like King. By December the New York Times was reporting that "For some, the statue's pose seemed 'arrogant' and the face did not look like Dr. King's. And worse, some said, the sculptor who made it is white." Soon some of the same politicians and officials who'd approved the statue were talking about cutting its head off and putting on a new one--or taking it down altogether.

That was two years ago, but the controversy has dragged on. Last month Rocky Mount made good on its threat to take the sculpture down. Assistant city manager Peter Varney says it was cut from its pedestal with a hacksaw and stashed in a city warehouse; they're waiting for an appraisal before deciding on whether to sell it. In the meantime they've commissioned a new statue--in the same pose, oddly enough--from California-based British sculptor Steven Whyte at a cost of $85,000. A model of Whyte's proposed piece went on display in Rocky Mount's city hall earlier this month; this week, under the headline "Public Pans Statue Model," the Rocky Mount Telegram reported that among people who've responded so far, more than half don't like the new maquette, and nearly a quarter would prefer keeping Blome's statue.

Though Blome is keeping busy, he says the conflict has affected a career in which, as he noted in the artist's statement for the Rocky Mount King, he was "honored and humbled to have been chosen to create and depict . . . great achievers and civil rights leaders." Blome says he doesn't want this controversy to have a negative effect on the campaign to find more adoptive parents for Ethiopian kids. "Perhaps the only connecting thread is that we don't believe in cultural 'race-matching' in artistic, social or adoptive pursuits," he wrote in an e-mail this week. The Blomes hope to open their Ethiopian exhibit in December and are trying to raise money to return to Addis Ababa to conduct more workshops with the children. For more information about that, contact them at whenigrowupiwanttobe@msn.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.

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