Under a spotless blue sky one morning in early December, the artist Hank Willis Thomas teetered 40 feet up on a crane over Boston Common, gripped its rail tight, and looked down. Below him “The Embrace,” his 22-foot-tall bronze memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, shimmered in the morning sun, the arms of its entwined couple forming, from above, the shape of a heart.
Five years before, it had been just an idea, one with no guarantees. But after Thomas and his partner on the project, MASS Design Group, won the public competition to build the memorial in 2019, things got very real, very quickly. Now, countless sketches, renderings, computer models, and tabletop-sized 3-D printouts later, “The Embrace” was finally here, in the place it was meant to be.
Back on the ground, Thomas, visibly elated and uncharacteristically at a loss for words, shrugged, incredulous. “I mean, what can I say?” he mused, looking back at the piece over his shoulder, again and again, hardly trusting his eyes. “It’s here. I almost can’t believe it. But it really is.”
It was a last look for Thomas before the piece’s official unveiling on Friday, and he can be forgiven the disbelief. Just a few months ago, “The Embrace,” all 40,000 pounds of it, was in hundreds of pieces at the Walla Walla Foundry in central Washington State, one of few places on the planet capable of such a feat of fabrication. It arrived on a caravan of trucks to be assembled in November; now, with its seams ground smooth and its final patina a uniform shade of dusky bronze, it’s ready to speak for itself. With its spot on the Common just off Tremont Street, the bustle of downtown all around, the opportunity for conversation will be boundless.
It’s now a permanent feature of our urban landscape, an instant icon destined to be an enduring symbol of the city — our Statue of Liberty, as Karin Goodfellow, the city’s director of public art, once said to me. And what a symbol it is.
In a city infamous for its ugly history of racism, it’s profoundly hopeful, an emblem of racial tolerance, justice, and love — the Kings’ life’s work, in the place where they met as students, galvanizing their sense of purpose. But let’s also give the piece its due as a game-changing work of monumental public art more broadly.
For centuries, memorial monuments have hewed to a standard: a solitary figure, sometimes a group, upright and gazing stoically into the distance. In Boston, we tend to like ours on horseback: George Washington, down the way in the Public Garden, or Paul Revere at Old North Church. They epitomize a persistent myth: that a single person, usually a man, almost always white, can claim the mantle of greatness alone.
“The Embrace” rejects that convention explicitly: Surrounding the piece is a memorial plaza studded with the names of dozens of activists whose own devotion to the cause of racial justice never earned them comparable renown. Gathered here, they raise each other up and reaffirm that justice is the work of both the many and the unsung.
The King story is not immune to hagiography: There are countless King tributes around the country very much in this vein. The King memorial in Washington, D.C., unveiled a little more than a decade ago in 2011, stands out among them with a creative sculptural strategy. King is pictured emerging from a towering block of granite, his partial encasement a material acknowledgment, perhaps, of work left unfinished. It’s not just an avatar but, conceptually, a piece of art. Even so, it steps barely outside convention: He stands resolute, arms crossed, a lone heroic figure with his eyes fixed on a far horizon.
“The Embrace” elides the myth-making trap with a visual grace tied to a moment: Its tangle of arms and hands is a three-dimensional imagining of a photograph of Martin and Coretta locked in celebration after his Nobel Peace Prize win in 1964. (Signage on site describes it; a QR code links to a website with the image itself). It’s a gesture of elation shadowed by the tragedy of the time, a ray of light amid the darkness of the often violent struggle for civil rights. Thomas’s extraction of their joyful embrace feels to me like an act of defiance — a statement, unequivocally, that love endures.
Its awkwardly ambiguous knot emanates warmth, endurance, exhaustion, and trauma all at once. We identify with a human gesture, with all its faults, before we identify them, specifically; it makes the piece relatable, inviting, universal, human. It doesn’t tell you what it is; it invites you to imagine what it could be, freighted with complexity and contradiction. There’s nothing more human than that.
That “The Embrace” exists as it does, exactly as Thomas and the MASS Design Group intended, is a minor miracle to be savored. Public art is almost always the product of withering compromise: In an effort to appease everyone, the end result often pleases no one.
The King memorial could have been on that path four years ago, as King Boston (now Embrace Boston), the nonprofit that willed it into being, had whittled down an open call for proposals for the project to five finalists. I remember looking them over in early 2019 and holding two very clear impressions in mind: I was convinced “The Embrace” was by far the most compelling proposal among them; and I was just as convinced, knowing what I did about art in public places, that its chances of winning would be next to zero.
The proposals were polished, professional, and, in keeping with public art convention, mostly anodyne, either choosing to memorialize the Kings with chilly architectural intervention (slabs of black granite embedded in the earth, proposed by Adjaye Associates) or preachy, lionizing tribute (Wodiczko + Bonder’s flashing towers and digital tickertape of human rights news).
Whatever form they took, the other proposals were far removed from anything human. When it comes to the Kings, isn’t humanity the point? Memorials, by their nature, honor the dead. “The Embrace” does that, surely, with a message for the living: that spirit, and purpose, and above all, love, lives on.
Soon enough, tricorne-hatted guides in Revolutionary War waistcoats will squire tourists to the memorial as they’re marched up and down the Freedom Trail. “The Embrace” is a new stop wisely added to the standard tour, a potent reminder that the Revolution of 1776 was only a starting point for the still-imperfect notion of American freedom.
But really, “The Embrace” is for Boston. We’ll come to it on the way to and from the movies or our lunch breaks; we’ll pass by it to ice skate at the Frog Pond, or shop on Newbury Street, or to chase grounders at the baseball field. As downtown workers stream by on foot, in cars, or on buses, its deep bronze hide will catch the glint of sunrise and sunset at every morning and evening commute. Every spring, it will be dusted with pollen as the Common’s urban forest shrugs off winter to bloom; every fall, it will be wreathed in autumn hues, fiery reds and golds and auburns, as those same trees prepare to surrender to the winter chill.
All of this will go on and on, long after anyone reading these words, on this day, is there to see it.
Murray Whyte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.