"It is a head; it is not a bust. There is no shoulder," insisted John Wilson, whose portrait in bronze of Martin Luther King Jr. will be dedicated today at the U.S. Capitol in one of the central events of this week of remembrances in Washington.
Wilson's brooding, "Buddha-like" sculpture -- to be housed permanently in the Capitol -- will be unveiled by Coretta Scott King at 2 p.m. in a ceremony at the Rotunda to which approximately 1,000 have been invited. A two-hour reception will follow. All pictures of the finished sculpture have been embargoed until then.
Wilson, 63, has been a full professor of art for more than two decades at Boston University -- where King earned his doctorate -- and passionately admired King's philosophy of confrontation with injustices, but the two never met.
Maybe that was, in ways, an advantage, suggested the artist yesterday. The very lack of personal knowledge, he said, may have helped free him from being literal in the likeness.
The figure is three feet high and will rest on a black Belgian marble pedestal. Working from photographs, Wilson did tap certain physical traits to make the image properly monolithic, he said.
"For instance, as King grew older and heavier, there were the lines on the face and the bags under the eyes. But, more important, there was that formidable back of the neck, from which I tried to get that bull-like power.
"I tried to make the rhythms fit, and the rhythms had to be simple and basic," said the artist, who won the $50,000 commission last April in a 200-artist competition jointly sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Congress' Joint Committee on the Library.
"The shape had to contain some sort of energy," Wilson continued. "It had to be at the right level to connect with the viewer. The head is tilted forward. It had to be serene. It also had to reflect the sense of conflict -- those two things essential to King's personality and his philosophy -- to create change by forcing confrontation."
Self-deprecating about his position in the trendier reaches of the art scene ("The official art world sort of ignores me . . . I feel alienated"), Wilson rates an impressive biography in "Who's Who in America," with works having been shown in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art, the Library of Congress and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, among others.
His style reflects some of the concerns of the great French master Fernand Le'ger, with whom he studied -- a preoccupation with large forms and mass. He's been particularly taken with the latter in the last decade, during which his emphasis has switched to sculpture from painting and drawing.
The mature Wilson has tried all kinds of styles -- "from near-abstraction to landscapes and figuration," he said -- but has always maintained his interest in portraiture.
A work like the King sculpture is not just a rendering of King, but a rendering of the artist's response to the subject, as is Daniel Chester French's great sculpture of Lincoln in the structure where King made his most famous speech, in the August 1963 March on Washington.
"King certainly was heroic to me," recalled Wilson. "But what moved me most about him was his capacity for personal growth; the way he could take on responsibility for the ability to make these monumental changes; the way he developed and made connections. They were associations that not only liberated the oppressed but also oppressors.
"It is not just some kind of abstract morality. It became truly revolutionary. His aim in life became to confront people with specific problems; problems that other people want to sweep under the rug.
"And in that sense I was especially concerned that my work not become a simplistic poster. I wanted it to suggest complexity and profundity, to be a work that people would want to spend some time contemplating, and that would give them cause to reflect."
The sculpture will remain in the Capitol Rotunda for six months and then be permanently placed in the foyer connecting the Rotunda with Statuary Hall.
Wilson has suggested it be placed in a niche there, with "four or five statements from King on panels on the wall behind it. The whole thing would become a sort of shrine."
Wilson would like to have carved on the top panel King's observation that "today it is not a question of violence versus nonviolence. It is a question of nonviolence versus nonexistence."
"I suspect," observed the sculptor, "that, if he were alive today, he would be involved in projects of this kind in a very practical way."