Ed Dwight never reached the moon as an astronaut, but his use of negative space in sculptures made him an international star.
As NASA celebrates the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing on Friday, the nation’s first African American trainee in the Apollo space program is surprised his story is suddenly being remembered.
An aeronautical engineer and Air Force test pilot, Dwight was picked by President John F. Kennedy to join Apollo training in 1962. But in 1963, when NASA chose its next group of astronauts, Dwight was not among them, and all 14 men chosen were white. Dwight left the military a few years later.
“America has a fascinating interest in forgetting things, [but reaching the moon] is one that people haven’t,” he said. “I’m getting invitations to speak all around the country.”
Yet, the 85-year-old Denver-based artist is better known for his 18,000 sculptures, including several prominent ones in the Washington area. Dwight’s statue of civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph sits in Union Station, and his work adorns the Our Mother of Africa Chapel in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
In 1974, Dwight was operating a construction company and restaurant when Colorado Lt. Gov. George Brown, the state’s first African American lieutenant governor, asked Dwight to create a statue of him.
“I was welding art from my house, making abstract figures out of metal,” Dwight said. “I said, ‘I don’t do that kind of work.’ He said, ‘I want you to go to the library for a book to teach you how to do this because you’re going to do this.’ ”
Dwight’s big break came in 1978, when the National Park Service commissioned him to create a statue of Frederick Douglass for the abolitionist’s historic Anacostia home. NPS also saw a series Dwight had made on African Americans in the West and commissioned a series from Dwight on the history of jazz, which turned out to be wildly successful.
“[NPS was] the one that really lit the spark of what possibilities existed,” Dwight said. “They saw some quality in my exhibitions and I managed to make people look like themselves. ... I was just trying to tell the African American story.”
Dwight said his outdoor works, such as his Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Memorial by the Annapolis docks, are often his most noticed.
“The scale of these things is critically important,” Dwight said. “It gets more attention and curiosity. I tell stories. I need room to tell the stories.”
Like the one of a prospective astronaut who found fame not in the heavens, but Earth.