“Harmonious Hunan” is presented by the Saint Paul Mayors Office, College of Visual Arts, Public Art Saint Paul and US-China Peoples Friendship Association of Minnesota. The exhibit will feature the artwork of Master Lei and other talented and accomplished Hunan artists including He Manzong, Zhu Xunde, Zhang Liping, Chen Feihu, Kuang Xiaojin, Hu Liwei, and Cao Mingqiu.* The artists will attend the closing reception Sunday, July 18, 4 to 6 p.m.
The Gallery is located at 173 Western Avenue North in St. Paul on the corner of Western and Selby avenues. Gallery hours are Wednesday and Friday: 12- 6 p.m., Thursday:
Lei Yixin is an artist and sculptor who enjoys the special government allowance granted by the State Council. He is a director of Chinese Sculpture Association, a member of National City Sculpture Association and vice-president of Artists Association of Hunan Province. He is also the vice-dean of Painting and Calligraphy Academic Institute, dean of Sculpture Institute of Hunan Province and a well known state-first-class artist.
Master Lei first came to Minnesota through the assistance of Jennie Hsiao, a prominent member of Minnesota’s Chinese community (and member of USCPFA-MN) to participate in Minnesota Rocks! International Carving Symposium hosted by Public Art Saint Paul in the summer of 2006. He was one of 14 artists from around the world who participated in the Symposium. His sculpture “Meditation”, the face of a Hunan girl, was carved from limestone quarried in Minnesota. The sculpture was later installed at Phalen Park in St. Paul.
Master Lei's Meditation sculpture
It was his “Meditation” sculpture which helped bring him to the attention Washington, D.C. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project. The committee for the MLK Memorial was looking for an artist to carve the Stone of Hope, the centerpiece of the memorial to be created on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. This comes from the quote by Dr. King: “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” Master Lei came under consideration after the committee saw his work for Minnesota Rocks!
After the close of the symposium, Master Lei was invited to Washington, DC to discuss the Memorial. Master Lei was grateful for a profile by China Insight staff writer Mike Xiong. **Because of his limited English, he brought copies of the article for the selection committee to read. He later said, “Everyone of the committee carefully read the article and it really helped a lot for them to understand me.”
Once he was selected to sculpt the Stone of Hope, he created a model for the committee. On Feb. 24, 2007, after the model was approved, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Project officially announced that Lei was the artist commissioned for the Memorial.
The Memorial Foundation’s Executive Architect, Dr. Ed Jackson, Jr. later wrote to Public Art Saint Paul: “The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project has greatly benefited from meeting such extraordinary artists, gaining better familiarity with their work, and seeing them in action. Your work is greatly appreciated by the Foundation, as it has helped to begin a conversation with Lei Yixin. [Minnesota Rocks!] was a wonderful event and, though unintentionally, perfectly timed for our project.”
While the timing of Master Lei’s introduction to the MLK Memorial Project might have been perfect, the same cannot be said about journey towards creating the memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr. According to the timeline outlining the history of the Memorial on the Memorial Project Web site (www.mlkmemorial.org), the first proposal to build a national memorial to Dr. King was made in 1984. It was not until Nov. 12, 1996 that President Bill Clinton signed Congressional legislation proposing the establishment of a Memorial in the District of Columbia to honor Dr. King. The location of the Memorial was approved in 1999, and ROMA Design Group of San Francisco, California was selected for the Memorial design in 2000.
After securing donations to fund the project and the selection of Master Lei, the ceremonial groundbreaking was held Nov. 13, 2006. Since the groundbreaking, the project continued to face challenges. Initially, there was some skepticism and criticism of the choice of Lei as sculptor. Some thought that, being from a Communist country, Lei would not have the same understanding of what Dr. King represents as an American sculptor would. Others felt that the commission should have gone to an African American artist; but the selection committee stood strong on its decision that Master Lei was the one for the job.
In 2008, when the Memorial was originally scheduled to be completed, Lei was asked to re-work the sculpture of Dr. King to soften his facial features. Many felt that Dr. King’s features looked too harsh, and others, once again questioning the rightness of Lei as sculptor, declared that the harshness of the features and the depiction of Dr. King standing with his arms folded made him look like a dictator.
Master Lei working on the Stone of Hope sculpture
Recently, the Memorial has had another delay. Work has begun at the Memorial site in Washington, D.C. and a “MLK Construction Cam” has been set up so that people can track the progress on the Memorial Project Web site. However, the Stone of Hope is stuck in China.
The 28-foot granite Stone of Hope was created in numerous sections that will be pieced together at the Memorial site with supervision by Lei. Initially, Greece had offered to ship the pieces from China to Greece to the United States, but due to economic troubles, Greece had to withdraw its offer. Now the Memorial Foundation will have to find another means of transporting the sculpture and the funds to do so.
Despite the setbacks, the MLK Memorial moves forward, just as Dr. King did as a Civil Rights leader. The Memorial will serve to remind Americans of all that Dr. King believed in and fought for. And by helping to create this monument honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Master Lei Yixin will also leave his mark on American history.
Mike Xiong contributed to this article.
Editor’s note: *Information about the other artists featured in the “Harmonious Hunan” exhibit is in the article “ ‘Harmonious Hunan’ artists are talented and accomplished” on elsewhere in this web site.
** “From a young amateur to China’s first-class sculptor: A life story of Artist Lei Yixin from Changsha, St. Paul’s sister city” by Mike Xiong appeared in the July-August 2006 issue of CHINAINSIGHT