DENVER -- On the northern edge of Denver's Park Hill neighborhood sits a foundry full of history.
"This is a part of an African-American memorial that I am doing for the state of Texas," says artist Ed Dwight Jr. as he analyzes a miniature sculpture in his hands. "It's going on the capitol grounds down in Austin."
Dwight is working on a memorial that's 44 feet long by 27 feet high, set to be unveiled in Texas this summer.
"So I've gotta model me a little conquistador like that guy standing right there," Ed says pointing at a mini model of a conquistador sculpture next to his cluttered workspace.
It is one of several miniature models situated throughout the foundry in which Dwight has sculpted for a little over 30 years. "I still work seven days a week, 10 hours a day."
Dwight takes great pride in the foundry as he explains, "all that equipment back there, I designed and built. I can do anything here any foundry in the country can do. I've done 30 foot tall memorials right here in this studio."
Just about all of Dwight's memorials, 127 to date, focus on one topic: black history. "What I do is bring the attention to the people that black people were on the planet. We contributed to the growth of America, to the economy of America [and] to the culture of America. And you can't take that away," Dwight says pausing from his work.
Dwight says information on black history and black historical figures can be difficult to find. "We are being thrown out of the textbooks and it's kinda like we were never here." Dwight uses his art work to educate the general public on facts and figures that may not be in text books. "What I do is try to get permanent remembrances in parks and on boulevards and cities."
Some of his biggest projects include a race riot memorial in Tulsa and a six block jazz district in Chicago. "I got thirteen memorials in Atlanta alone," Dwight recalls. He says his memorials outside of Washington D.C. are privately funded.
EARLY YEARS AND THE NEW FRONTIER
Ed Dwight Jr. was born and raised in Kansas City, Kansas and grew up with a passion for art. He claims he completed his first painting at 8 years old. After high school he earned a full scholarship to the Kansas City Art Institute, but his father had other plans for his life. "And my dad [said] 'what, you ain't going to be any artist! You are going to engineering school," Dwight says, reenacting his father yanking him by the shirt. "And I asked my father what do [engineers] do and he said, 'they make money."
Dwight went on to earn an Aeronautical Engineering degree from Arizona State University and later became an Air Force pilot.
"I came to public attention back in 1961, 62, 63, when President Kennedy was thinking way ahead of his time." In 1961 President Kennedy tapped the young pilot to become America's first black astronaut.
"When I got this letter, I thought it was a joke," Dwight chuckles. "And I was waiting for someone to say gotcha! I thought I was being punked. It was very revolutionary to even be discussing the idea of having a black astronaut going to space. The nation didn't want a black astronauts, NASA didn't want any black astronauts."
Dwight says becoming an astronaut was not on his bucket list nonetheless he spent the early 60's touring the nation as a motivational speaker and ambassador of the space program. "I was working to promote the idea of it so they could get it on people's minds that that was a possibility," he says.
He says mostly gave speeches to black youth and he later found out that was no coincidence. "I found out later that the very reason I was there had to do with blacks going to college." To this day Dwight says he receives letters and e-mails from people who were inspired by his talks so long ago. He has been the subject of doctoral dissertations. "I got about uh maybe 20, 25 doctoral dissertations written about my life," he chuckles.
But the trajectory of the would-be astronaut's career changed on one November day. "We were on the winning side until November 22, 1963 when President Kennedy was assassinated. So that changed my life. And that was the key to changing everything about Ed Dwight."
When Kennedy died, discrimination and harassment intensified in the space program. "The President can put you in it, but that doesn't mean that the people that are running it will accept it . . . and I had to take all the wrath that these guys were dishing out. Tapping my phone for the whole time I was in the program. Intercepting my mail, censoring my mail for all the time I was in the program."
Three years later, Dwight resigned from the program.
Dwight went on to start a construction company and open a chain of BBQ restaurants in Colorado while making art on the side. A conversation with a politician changed the course of his life in 1974.
"Our first black Lieutenant Governor George Brown, back in 1974, saw some art in my house that I had done to decorate my house. And he came to me and he says, 'Ed, we need some one in the black community to memorialize everything black people have done. ' I said 'what do black people do George? I don't know anything about black people, I went to white schools.' And he got angry with me and called me a name that I can't say on the TV."
Lt. Gov. Brown gave Dwight a book to read about black history. The book taught him about black historical figures of which he'd never heard. "I didn't know who Harriet Tubman was until I was 42-years-old or Fredrick Douglas, or Sojourner Truth or Nat Turner."
His mid-life black history lesson changed the course of his career as he began to make sculptures of the black historical figures he'd learned about in the book. "And the first one was Frederick Douglas."
Each sculpture and memorial led to more opportunities and now Dwight is a world renowned sculptor of black history. He says his background in science is big part of his artistic success. "Everything I do, it's all engineering and science. When we color the sculptures its all chemistry. I have a chemistry lab back there to mix chemicals in order to get the color that you see back there," he says pointing to some of his pieces on display. "Everything we do here, there is a scientific part of it. Art is probably the smallest part."
Dwight says there is still one memorial he feels obligated to sculpt. "What I am upset about and I am really upset about this, is that Guion Bluford was the first black to travel into space and nobody has talked about that man. I truly want to do a memorial to him. There is none! Why not? He's the first black man to travel into space why isn't there a huge memorial to Guion Bluford?" Dwight shrugs his shoulders in frustration.
Dwight says he wants to continue sculpting for as long as possible. "Maybe I can get somebody to clone me." he says with a big laugh.
This renaissance man's journey to create, educate and inspire is far from over. "I'm a visionary kinda opportunistic guy. Anything can be done. There is nothing that can't be done."
To find out more about Ed Dwight Jr.'s colorful life, visit his website.