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A King Statue 'Made in China'?
But more important than material rewards, sculptors, painters and others say, is the artistic license that the government gives them. "Foreigners think we artists in China have no freedom, that we are told what to create. That's not true," said Zhu, chairman of the Hunan Association of Artists.
The opportunities for sculptors of monuments are especially numerous.
In the United States, artists may wait a lifetime for the chance to create a public monument. But in China, thanks to an unprecedented construction boom, even small towns are clamoring for artists to build monuments honoring local heroes.
Lei can boast of more than 150 public monuments that bear his name. Roughly a fourth are of prominent historical figures, such as busts of Mao Zedong. Other famous works include "Crossing the Border," which features a family of anxious but excited rural peasants taking its first trip abroad, and a totem pole decorated with copies of relics unearthed during the recent excavation of an ancient village near his home.
Xiao Xiaoqiu, 39, a protege of Lei who first helped Lei on his projects and now leads his own teams, said it was obvious to him why a Chinese artist was chosen for the Martin Luther King memorial. "Chinese sculptors have many more opportunities to practice," he said.
Lei usually spends just a few months on one project, but for the King memorial -- which he describes as "the most important work of my life" -- he will take 18 months.
The statue Lei is creating -- which at 28 feet will be a full nine feet taller than the statue in the Jefferson Memorial -- will be the centerpiece of the tribute to King. The memorial will span four acres near the Tidal Basin between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials, facing Jefferson. Visitors will first walk through a grove of spruce and magnolia trees by a waterfall and read a selection of the civil rights leader's famous words carved on walls. At the end of their walk, they will see King's likeness emerging from a chunk of granite.
Lei has hired 10 other Chinese sculptors, many of them local university professors, to help him create the giant monument. But it is Lei who will carve critical features such as King's face and hands.
Lei said there was much internal debate at the foundation about how King should look. Some thought the statue should reflect King as an ambassador of peace. Some wanted to present his urbane, intellectual side. Still others wanted to make him into a towering heroic figure. "If there are 1,000 readers of 'Hamlet,' " Lei said, "you will have 1,000 interpretations."
For months, Lei buried himself in King's readings and speeches. At one point, every wall in his studio was covered with pictures of King. In the end, Lei's interpretation was this: Martin Luther King was a great man but also an ordinary man. "He is short and doesn't stand out in a crowd," he said. "But when his voice comes out, he's a leader. His charisma has attracted millions of Americans to follow his cause."
So in his first clay model, Lei showed King standing, arms folded across his chest, his left hand grasping a pen. The goal, Lei said, is "when you see the statue of Martin Luther King, you might think of the injustices around the world, which call for our collaborative efforts . . . to bring to justice the things that King himself was unable to finish."
Staff researcher Wu Meng and wire services contributed to this report.