Shine on: Martin Luther King Jr. monument in Baton Rouge is being restored

Shine on: Martin Luther King Jr. monument in Baton Rouge is being restored


Editor’s note: This story was written when restoration began in February 2021. The monument will be fully restored in March 2021.

We thank donors to this project: Entergy, Irene W. and C.B. Pennington Foundation, Jennifer Eplett and Sean E. Reilly, Baton Rouge Coca-Cola Bottling Company, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation, Capital One, ExxonMobil, Hancock-Whitney Bank, McMains Foundation, Regions Bank, and Baton Rouge Business Report

By Jeffrey Roedel
As waves of clear plastic sheeting ripple in sharp rhythmic thwacks against the rails and cross braces of the scaffolding, and a violet buzz broadcasts from above her, Susie Anders surveys the shrouded monolith that towers over her small frame on a windy afternoon outside City Hall and the River Center in downtown Baton Rouge.

Sandblasting started on a Saturday in early February. Now it’s nearly sundown on Wednesday, and that phase is done. Next comes the primer, then fresh paint, and an official public unveiling for what is a long-overdue renewal.

Restorer Susie Anders secures tape before the final painting of the Martin Luther King Jr. sculpture | Tim Mueller Photo
Restorer Susie Anders secures tape before the final painting of the Martin Luther King Jr. sculpture | Tim Mueller Photo

“Sandblasting is a delicate process because we have to be careful not to damage the substrate,” says Anders, a veteran art restoration and conservation specialist. “Painting aluminum outdoors is extremely challenging, but a lot of fun, too.”

The project at hand is the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. memorial sculpture—a stunning 21-foot-high public art piece erected at the River Center Plaza in 1997 and dedicated to the iconic civil rights leader. In the 24 years since then, its original deep blue and orange hues were sublimated by storms and whipping winds off the levee, like those this small restoration team has been feeling all week.

The structural integrity of the sculpture is at risk, too, Anders says, if the metal is not treated and protected with new layers of all-weather heat-resistant paint similar to what is used in protecting ship hulls and shading automobiles.

The colorful ode to social change was crafted by an artist whose creative trajectory was itself born from a dramatic evolution. Arthur Silverman was a successful urologist in New Orleans until his 50s. That’s when a friend with fatal health problems challenged him to never waste a single day ignoring his passions. Taking the sage advice of his dying friend to heart, Silverman left the medical field and began carving wood into large-scale sculptures, then fabricating metal monuments.

More than 30 of Silverman’s pieces are prominently on public display in New Orleans, including at Tulane Law School and the Entergy Centre on Poydras Street.

The Baton Rouge Area Foundation, the Office of Mayor-President, the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge and many civic and business leaders teamed in the early 1990s to kickstart fundraising for the project, and the same stakeholder organizations began discussions in 2017 about the restoration of Silverman’s work.

The pandemic put progress on hold, but in mid-2020 the project gained steam again.

“You need someone highly skilled and specialized to manage all of this,” says Sarah Gardner, BRAF’s Project Manager of Civic Leadership Initiatives. “Susie is absolutely that.”

Silverman died in 2018 and his studio dissolved soon after, so Anders coordinated with his former employees, consulted arts experts and scoured public records for details and research on the sculpture.

“He thought of it as a place where people can come, sit near it and eat lunch, talk to one another, lots of different people together,” Anders says.

With help from the Arts Council and EBR Library, Anders researched Silverman’s original plans for the sculpture, an abstract spiritual piece with an intent and message that is often lost on passersby.

“I can’t tell you how many times the stakeholders would meet here at the sculpture to discuss the restoration and notice a lot of people walk by it without a glance, not knowing this iconic work is related to Dr. King at all,” Gardner says.

King’s connection with Baton Rouge is strong. In the early 1950s, the young pre-fame reverend attended several lectures at Southern University as part of a liturgical series. In 1956, King met with local civil rights activists, pastors and Southern faculty to learn everything about the 1953 Baton Rouge Bus Boycott.

Soon after King’s fact-finding mission in the Red Stick, he and Rosa Parks spearheaded the successful 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott, resulting in the Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional. That kind of change is an inherent visual theme in the monument, with its vividly opposed yet complementary colors intertwining and releasing a cross to the sky.

“The experience is to understand the original fabrication, to restore the structural integrity of it but also the appearance, and in doing that, give it back to the community as the artist intended,” Anders says. “It’s about drawing attention to Dr. King, being a source of unity and hope for this community—which is so incredibly needed right now. I feel blessed to be part of that process.”

The veteran art restorationist emphasizes that her work is less about aluminum and polyurethane and more fundamental to furthering King’s influence on the city of Baton Rouge. Silverman’s sculpture is a worthy and striking visual reminder of that pursuit.

“We want to invite the community to interact with it, contemplate its meaning and how they can implement Dr. King’s legacy and message in their lives,” Gardner says. “It’s no secret we are in divisive times right now, so understanding how we can come together as a community is what we hope this restoration will help accomplish.”

A second phase could include greenspace improvements, updated recognition of donors and details of the monument.

The word restore has Latin roots in the same words that mean “to build,” “to stand firm,” and “to give back,” all values King fought for and gave his life for in 1968—in the face of the mightiest of storms.

The hope of Anders and local leaders is that restoring this monument will in some ways renew faith in the things he believed in so strongly; that this sculpture that stands firm right next to City Hall can better survive the harsh winds and bad weather thrown its way, and that the people of the city will overcome adversity better, too.

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