Hank Willis Thomas reclined in a plush armchair on stage Wednesday at the Institute of Contemporary Art and smiled. The artist, who conceived “The Embrace,” the enigmatic, towering 20-foot bronze memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King destined for Boston Common next year, had just finished his first in-depth public discussion about the project. It was a long, animated, and often playful conversation with King Boston executive director Imari Paris Jeffries — “we became Zoom BFFs over the past couple of years,” Jeffries said — and the floor had opened for questions.
The occasion, King Boston’s inaugural Embrace Ideas Festival, was triumphant. After pandemic delays, the memorial’s installation was set: Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2023. The crowd was expectant, the mood ebullient. The first question, about Thomas’s creative process for the piece, brought the artist forward in his chair. “The process,” he said and laughed, “was, ‘We’re never going to get this, so let me just come up with some ideas.’”
Thomas’s proposal for the King memorial, made jointly with Boston-based MASS Design Group, wasn’t exactly a surprise winner when it was chosen among a field of five finalists in a design competition held by King Boston, the memorial’s sponsor, three years ago. The proposal was both bold and unconventional, traits not typically associated with major public art commissions, which too often set the low bar of being the least challenging to the most people.
Thomas and MASS Design Group had great credentials, the artist with a history of frank, incisive work that digs at the heart of American racial division; and MASS Design Group with a portfolio of socially conscious projects, most prominently the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., dedicated to the thousands of lives lost to racial violence in America. Still, Thomas had his doubts. Not showing his subjects’ faces in a memorial, Thomas said, made their chances “one in a million. But here we are.”
In an interview earlier that day, Thomas told the Globe that what made the piece a long shot, in his view, was also its core strength. “When we recognize that all storytelling is an abstraction, all representation is an abstraction, hopefully it allows us to be open to more dynamic and complex forms of representation that don’t stick us to narrative that oversimplifies a person or their legacy, “ he said. “And I think this work really tries to get to the heart of that.”
A young Martin and Coretta met here in Boston in 1952 while she was a student at the New England Conservatory of Music and he was a doctoral student at Boston University. They were a pair of idealists with a vision to change the world, and “The Embrace” captures a major step on that path. Its source is a 1964 photograph taken right after Martin Luther King Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In a moment of elated exhaustion, the picture shows the beaming Martin slumping into Coretta’s arms; she holds him, eyes closed. The memorial renders in three dimensions the tangle of his and Coretta’s arms and his hands resting on her shoulder.
“I wanted to make something that really talked about love,” Thomas told the audience Wednesday. “I saw in that moment, how much of his weight was literally on top of her. And I thought that was a really symbolic idea: That she was literally holding his weight. And that’s true in so many relationships, and especially relationships of that era with men and women, where the wives had to carry the burden of the man who was getting the award.”
Thomas’s and Jeffries’s conversation was the keystone event of “The Saving Power of Culture,” the theme of the third day of the five-day festival, which also included a panel discussion on the changing nature of monuments amid the social upheavals of the day. Thomas explained how he chose to make an emotional portrait of the Kings, not a literal one, a profound decision that defies every convention of permanent public memorials. Off-the-rack monuments to “great men,” often on horseback, usually en route to or from one war or another — look around town; we have plenty — are the norm. “The Embrace,” with its couple entwined, debunks simplistic ideas about anyone being singular and achieving greatness alone.
Thomas, who grew up in New York and Washington, D.C., has spent a lot of time thinking about art in the public sphere. “For Freedoms,” his ongoing, artist-led collaboration with Eric Gottesman, Michelle Woo, and Wyatt Gallery, holds public forums and makes temporary interventions all over the country on billboards and overpasses, pinned to the political realities of the moment. ”I think all art is activism,” Thomas told the crowd. “I think all consciously lived lives are activism. If you wake up, and you say ‘I am, and I can,’ you’re already an activist.”
“The Embrace” — which is currently being fabricated at the Walla Walla Foundry in Washington state — is different from anything he has done. It is prominent, destined for what’s considered the oldest public park in the country; meant to be permanent, as memorials tend to be; and huge, big enough to pass underneath and see sky through its clenched arms. “That’s really the core of it: When you walk inside of it, you will be in the heart of their hug,” Thomas said.
Thomas remembers showing his first sketch to Michael Murphy, executive director of MASS Design Group. “The idea that we thought was least likely to get [chosen] was the one that spoke to our hearts,” Thomas said. “It was this reality that the thing that scared us, that way that it felt a little bit haunting, is why it felt like it was what needed to be made.”
Thomas is willing to buck at least one more convention of the public memorial: permanence. “I think we have to ask: Will this be important in 100 years? When do we get to review this?” he said in conversation with Jeffries. “To create a greater balance and equity for future generations, [to] make sure that nothing is put up that doesn’t have a question mark attached, about how it’s contributing to society.”
With more than half a year left before the piece is unveiled in its at-minimum very long-term home on the Common, he can allow himself a moment to exhale, and dream.
“There’s something really amazing for me to think about these two young lovers, who met here in Boston, walking in that park, and for all I know, embracing steps away from where this monument will be, and having that resonate not only all over the world, but also throughout space and time,” Thomas said. “And I hope that other young lovers will be walking in this space, and remember that when they embrace one another, that they also could be embracing the world.”