Visual Arts

The Enduring Sculptures of Dana King

“Guided by Justice” sculpture
“Guided by Justice” (photograph courtesy of Equal Justice Initiative, Montgomery, AL)

Bronze monument sculptor Dana King signs off her emails with a quote from one of Black History’s most formidable pillars, the great humanitarian and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune: “Without faith, nothing is possible; with it, nothing is impossible.”

Bethune has not been immortalized in bronze—yet—by King, who proudly focuses her practice on bringing to life the African Ancestors who have so much to teach this country and the world. With an impressive list of current commissions, King is gaining well-deserved national acclaim for her breathtaking depictions of “Black Bodies in Bronze.” It’s safe to say that Mary McLeod Bethune would approve.

Consider Guided By Justice (2018), three individual statues depicting women who participated in the Montgomery bus boycott, protesting the policy of racial segregation on the Alabama capital’s public transit system. Every detail of these dignified figures—down to a pair of mid-century eyeglass frames—is meticulously realized with equal parts timeless emotional impact, painstaking accuracy, and purest love. Resolutely walking a graveled path at Montgomery’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the figures appear so lifelike, one assumes they are the work of a sculptor who has been practicing her art for a lifetime.

In fact, King is living proof that it’s never too late to pivot and dedicate oneself to art. She worked in broadcast journalism for 25 years, rising to the top of her profession at KPIX in San Francisco: “I was the evening anchor, and prior to that I worked in the field,” she says. “I have five Emmys, two Edward R. Murrows, two Gracies. I loved what I did, until I didn’t love it anymore.” Art called to her, and she was compelled to answer. “I always knew I was going to be an artist,” she says.

And so, at 48, an age when mostartists find themselves at mid-career, King “worked and went to school to get my MFA. I was on the air at night, so I would go to school during the day, and then jam over to the TV studio.” Then it was back to the art studio to wash up, and paint. King was “halfway through my MFA in fine art painting” when she took a three-day weekend figurative sculpture course in Sacramento with instructor Philippe Faraut.

“I attended with a friend, because she wanted someone to drive with from San Francisco to Sacramento,” King recalls. “I thought, ‘Oh, that’d be fun’; I had no expectations.” But those three days were life-changing: “Clay spoke to me in a way that no other medium has, ever. I drove back to Sacramento by myself to tell this master sculptor that I couldn’t stay, because I didn’t have any more room in my head; I just needed to go do this work! And I’ve been doing it ever since.”

That was 2010. King was delighted to join the Thelma Harris Art Gallery in Oakland. “All the work I’ve ever done is Afrocentric, and I knew I wanted to be rep’d by a black-owned gallery, so I totally stalked her!” Public art is King’s abiding passion. “I want people, especially children, to touch my work and commune with it… That’s the beauty of public art.”

With a profound affinity for young people, Dana King is on a mission to empower them. “I didn’t grow up with access to art museums or public art,” she says. “I grew up in a small town in Michigan, and I didn’t see myself in the public square. I didn’t see a sculpture of an African descendant until I was grown. And I want to do everything I can so that kids don’t have to wait to see themselves, their families, their history, their importance.”

The Hon. William Byron Rumford
The Hon. William Byron Rumford

In 2016, four years after re-dedicating herself to art full-time, King received her first public art commission: a portrait of The Hon. William Byron Rumford, the first African American elected to a state public office in Northern California. The monument stands in Rumford’s home town, South Berkeley, sporting a 1963 NAACP button as well as the expertly-sculpted spectacles that are a King signature, and a metaphor for her keen artistic vision.

After the Rumford monument came many more, equally powerful, public artworks. Unveiled in 2020, New Haven’s monument to William “King” Lanson is Dana King’s deeply felt tribute to the formerly enslaved man who arrived in Connecticut at the turn of the last century, where he achieved visionary feats of engineering. King was profoundly moved when New Haven Alder Jeanette Morrison shared that the Lanson monument reminded her of her father, “a proud, strong black man who has taken on the responsibilities to ensure justice for people who look like him.”

William “King” Lan
William “King” Lan

The following year, 2021, saw the unveiling of two major landmarks created by King: a bust of Dr. Huey P. Newton in West Oakland, commissioned by his widow Fredrika Newton, the first permanent sculpture of a Black Panther member in the city where the freedom fighters began their mission; and Monumental Reckoning in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, a conceptual masterpiece in which 350 Ancestral figures—representing the first stolen human beings to be taken from West Africa in 1619—surround the plinth of white supremacist Francis Scott Key.

Dr. Huey P. Newton
Dr. Huey P. Newton

She’s never not working, yet King made time to serve for nine years on the board of the Oakland Museum of Art (her term ended last year); she currently serves on the boards of Illuminate the Arts in San Francisco (which commissioned Monumental Reckoning) and MSeum, the world’s first museum to be built by women, for women artists. For MSeum, she will undertake, among other projects, portraits of fellow sculptor Edmonia “Wildfire” Lewis; actor-activist Fredi Washington; World War II Cadet Nurse Amelia Prillerman; and civil rights activist Patricia Stephens Due.

Righting historical wrongs, in the most beautifully impactful way possible, is a Dana King specialty. “I create memories in bronze for African descendants,” she concludes. “We have a right to our memories.” G&S

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