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Sculptor also had a dream: Honoring King with art

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Chris Sharp was standing at a copying machine in the Vermont high school where he teaches art when the White House security people called: Was he the guy who sent the heavy bronze sculpture of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the homemade wooden packing crate?

Absolutely, Sharp replied. He was the guy who, at his own expense, sculpted, cast and was shipping in carpet-lined crates his 60-pound statues of King to President Obama and 16 other destinations across the country.

The White House was "direct," but pleasant, Sharp said of the conversation a week or so ago, and the caller seemed to know everything about him. Apparently satisfied, "they said, 'thank you very much,' " and bade him good day.

Sharp asked whether his sculpture would reach the president: "They said they didn't know."

But the sculptor was delighted. After five years of work, and many nights with the lights on at 4 a.m. in his barn outside Burlington - and some folks thinking he sounded crazy - copies of his unusual sculpture of King were arriving at their destinations.

"All these packages are finally going where you had worked so hard to get them," he said.

And in a kind of benevolent performance art, they were landing in VIP mailrooms across the country - pure, heartfelt gestures in the era of the suspicious package, the smoldering parcel and the fear of hidden, improvised catastrophe.

The heavy wooden boxes that the 45-year-old Burlington High School teacher said he built in his studio and sent to The Washington Post, NPR, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and the National Portrait Gallery, along with several school systems, contained little more than his bronze of King.

The one he sent to Obama, for the American people, did include a button Sharp found on the Internet that had come from the famous 1963 March on Washington, where King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech.

Other than that - as the nation marks the civil rights leader's birthday Monday - Sharp's oddball packages bore only King's hope that national discord might one day become the "beautiful symphony of brotherhood."

Sharp said he paid for everything but declined to say how much the enterprise cost. "The true value of the project has absolutely nothing to do with money," he said.

A resident of Shelburne, Vt., Sharp said he began thinking about sculpting King several years ago when plans were afoot to design the new King Memorial, now being completed on the Tidal Basin in Washington.

The memorial design had been selected, but Sharp wanted to make a King sculpture anyhow, he said in a telephone interview. He planned something more intimate.

He began his research five years ago, and he began work on the sculpture three years ago.

He was struck by what he saw as a duality in King - compassion and confrontation.

"I'm going to make a dual portrait that captures both elements of who Dr. King is," Sharp recalled thinking at the time. "The person who is reaching out his hand and is trying to give and help and pull people up to a better place. And then the dynamic, confrontational speaker who is inspiring and accusing at the same time."

His design called for two Kings in the statue: one standing as if giving a speech; the other, growing out of the first, crouched down with a hand extended in greeting.

The standing part of the 33-inch-tall statue has three raised right arms, to illustrate motion, Sharp said.

For two years, after teaching all day and helping his two young daughters with their homework at night, he would go to his studio in the restored barn on his property and work on the clay version of the statue.

One night, a passing friend, seeing the lights on in the barn about 4 a.m., stopped. "What are you doing?" he asked. The sculptor poured out the story. His friend's eyes grew big, Sharp said.

"You sound crazy right now," Sharp remembered the friend saying.

Sharp said he finished the clay sculpture in August. He located a foundry, A.R.T. Research Enterprises in Lancaster, Pa., and had the pieces cast there.

There were 19 in all. He said he sent out 17, and he kept two for his children, for when they get older. "They'll look back and they'll say, 'Oh, I remember this time my dad was such a wacko running around. . . . This is why he did that,' " he joked.

Ben Blaney, a junior partner in the foundry, said Sharp's request was unusual. A customer might order one or two such castings, but not 19.

"It's not a normal thing," Blaney said. "To do these and then donate them the way that he did is not a normal thing."

Shortly after Christmas, Sharp had all of the sculptures in Vermont.

"It was like an army of Martin Luther King Jrs. in my studio," he said. "All these hands reaching for a higher and higher place."

Meanwhile, he had also designed and tested the shipping box, which on its inside has carefully made wooden supports covered with pieces of soft carpet.

He shipped one of the sculptures to friends and asked that they ship it back to see whether the box protected the sculpture. It did.

Earlier this month, he began shipping out his sculptures to a wary nation. He was relieved to get the e-mails reporting their safe delivery.

"We live in a crazy world," he said. "And even if you have something good to say, it's hard to always get it to the right place."

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