For sculptor Basil Barrington Watson, the opportunity to create a 12-foot-tall bronze monument to mark the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s long fight for civil rights was more than a simple commission. It also was about family legacy.
His father, painter Barrington Watson, was a visiting professor at Spelman College in 1970 when the school asked that he paint a portrait of King. “When I submitted my proposal and it was accepted, it was like a continuation of my father’s legacy,” says Watson. “I considered it a great honor for my family and our history.” [. . .] The first of seven installations commissioned to honor the legacy and global influence of the civil rights leader, Hope Moving Forward was the winning sculpture proposal of a selection committee made up of representatives from the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, MARTA and Clark Atlanta University.
When Watson’s proposal was accepted, the monument took on a highly personal meaning.
Watson established his home and studio in Lawrenceville after migrating to the United States from Jamaica 19 years ago. He says he’s aspired to carve impactful, iconic outdoor sculptures since his student days at the Jamaica School of Art, now part of the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, in Kingston. In the 40 years since, his larger than life-size sculptures of Olympic gold medalists Usain Bolt, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Asafa Powell — among others at Jamaica’s National Stadium — stand as a testament to his steadfast vision, discipline and professional ambition. His Rings of Life commission was unveiled by Prince Harry in 2012, in honor of Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee. And four years ago he was awarded the Order of Distinction (Commander) by the Government of Jamaica in recognition of his contributions in the field of art.
Drawn to art from an early age, Watson cannot identify what first sparked his interest. But he grew up hearing stories about how, as a toddler, he’d stand transfixed in front of his father’s paintings. The elder Watson, known as the father of Jamaica’s modern art movement, was the first director of studies at the Jamaica School of Art (1962–66) and official portraitist of several Jamaican prime ministers, including Alexander Bustamante, Michael Manley and Edward Seaga. [. . .]
But he also thinks building community and embracing commonality is important, and that public art plays a key role in that. “If we expand our concept of society, and imagine it as an extension of our homes, we’ll understand the real significance of memorials and statues,” Watson says. “Just as we seek to decorate our personal spaces with things that affirm our sense of self and contribute to a feeling of well-being, public art can enrich our lives, teach our children about the world, and reinforce the correct values.”