In 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. came to Main Campus to speak at the Baptist Temple, now known as the Temple Performing Arts Center.
A bust of King now stands outside the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection in Sullivan Hall, just a few hundred feet away from where he stood more than 50 years ago. The Blockson Collection is a research center on Black history and culture.
“Whenever you get an opportunity to highlight and learn about individuals who really made a difference in our society, it’s always a good thing,” said Diane Turner, the curator of the Blockson Collection.
The bust, painted by students from the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts on Broad Street near Christian, is one of nine commissioned by Comcast, the world’s largest media corporation based in Philadelphia, to commemorate King and Black History Month.
For the project, Comcast partnered with several Philadelphia-based educational and youth organizations, including Girard College, Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Overbrook School for the Blind.
The groups were each given six-foot, fiberglass busts of King to paint. After each bust was decorated, the statues were put on display across Philadelphia, where they will remain until the end of February.
Plaques with quotes from King were placed on the pedestals of each statue. When painting the busts, the student groups were prompted to visually interpret their assigned quotations.
The sculpture outside the Blockson accompanies a quote that reads: “We must live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” The students painted an ocean scene with bright orange flames stretching down the center of King’s jacket, representing his passion, according to a statement from the student group. The motion of the waves is meant to symbolize the civil rights movement.
Rose Holden, Comcast’s director of multicultural marketing communications, organized the project. Although she said Comcast always runs a themed advertisement in conjunction with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Holden said this year’s project was the first time the company spearheaded a collaborative student effort to recognize King.
“One of the things you don’t know going in the project [is] how [the students] are going to interact with the art and if it will feel like an assignment or if they’ll be passionate about that,” Holden said. “I was really excited to see it was the latter.”
CAPA was commissioned to paint five of the nine busts. Maria Stevens, CAPA’s sculpture teacher, learned about the project when she received an email from her principal outlining Comcast’s plan.
Though Stevens said she often receives requests from groups looking for artistic contributions from her students, she knew this project was truly worthwhile.
“I could see that this was a great opportunity for students,” Stevens said. “It was community-based, [and] it was about an American icon in our history that was just extremely important.”
For each bust, five visual arts students at CAPA collaborated to develop a concept and paint the statue.
Paulina Krajewska, a 12th grader from Port Richmond, was tasked with representing the quote, “I have decided to stick with love. … Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
Her group decided to paint the Philadelphia skyline across King’s jacket, with a red and blue sky meeting in the center. They wanted the piece to symbolize “togetherness,” Krajewska said.
Though she has previously shown some of her art publicly, Krajewska said she has never participated in such a large-scale project before. The statue is on display inside the School District of Philadelphia’s office on Broad Street near Callowhill.
“Seeing it in a place where people can just walk by and see it, it’s exciting,” Krajewska said.
For Ethan Holland, an 11th-grader from Mt. Airy, being included in the project felt like a privilege.
“Being able to paint on someone that has an impact on everyone…it’s just a huge honor,” Holland said. “They’ve assigned you for a reason, because they know you’re good at art, and they want you to make Martin Luther King recognizable with your talent.”
Holland’s group chose to paint a scene of blooming flowers to illustrate King’s “bright” effect on the country, he said. Near the base of the statue, red and purple vines adorned with flower buds wrap around the pedestal. As the vines move up the statue, they bloom into yellow sunflowers and lilies surrounded by greenery. Their sculpture is inside City Hall.
“We decided to put flowers, too, to represent how he bloomed, to go with the idea of how he enlightened everyone,” Holland said.