'A perfect match:' Renowned artist Ed Dwight will sculpt Gen. 'Chappie' James statue
Sculptor Ed Dwight could probably conceptualize, work on and finish one of his many masterpieces in the time it would take one to recite his massive resume and lifelong list of accomplishments.
The 88-year-old former Air Force test pilot and America’s first African-American astronaut candidate took a winding and unlikely road to become one of the country's most renowned artists and sculptors.
That road will lead Dwight through Pensacola when he sculpts a 10-foot statue of Pensacola native Gen. Daniel "Chappie" James to be placed at the base of the Pensacola Bay Bridge in the near future, which itself will be renamed the Gen. Daniel "Chappie" James Jr. Bridge.
"It's a perfect match," said Pensacola City Councilwoman Teniadé Broughton, speaking of Dwight being selected to create the monument. "That's the best way to describe it. For (Dwight) to be the one to put the Chappie monument together, it's a perfect match."
The owner of an unprecedented resume himself, James was the first African-American to reach the rank of four-star general in the United States. The World War II veteran and Tuskegee Airman grew up in a segregated Pensacola in the 1920s.
As Dwight embarks on the sculpting process — one that is very technically driven and rooted in his mindset as an engineer — the sculptor has a much greater appreciation for James now than he did as a pilot in the Air Force and as a 27-year-old aerospace research pilot.
Though centuries of oppression and segregation wound up shaping Dwight's career and his drive to monumentalize Black figures, Dwight admitted he was oblivious to a lot of Black history well into adulthood, including James' legacy.
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"We grew up in different universes, so to speak," Dwight said in a Friday phone interview with the News Journal. "Where I grew up in Kansas, I went to white schools all the way through."
Dwight actually had contentious experiences with the Tuskegee Airmen — and James himself — in the early 1960s when he was appointed by former U.S. President John F. Kennedy's administration to become the country's first African-American astronaut candidate.
"The Tuskegee Airmen as a group came down on President Kennedy and did everything in the world to discredit who I was, saying things like, 'How the hell are you going to pick this guy, we've got all these pilots, yada yada yada,'" Dwight said. "But there was a criteria that those men didn't meet, that I did.'"
The selection process, Dwight said, was dictated by a criteria that required candidates to be under 30 years of age and to have recorded at least 2,500 hours of jet time, among other requirements.
"Chappie James was very upset because they didn't choose him," Dwight said. "There was a thought that he was the natural heir to the throne. But they wanted someone under 30, they wanted someone with an aeronautical engineering degree. I ended up filling all of those boxes."
Dwight never reached outer space, as a number of prejudicial and political factors led to his military exit, including Kennedy's 1963 assassination.
The Kansas native and current Denver, Colorado, resident went on to wear many hats in the professional world, including becoming an engineer at IBM, launching a chain of barbecue restaurants and becoming a construction company owner and real estate development entrepreneur.
In a roundabout way, his success and savvy in the construction arena guided Dwight to a 40-year artistic career.
"I had just bought a big house, I was the first Black (man) to move into this white neighborhood, and my wife and I were in the decorating phase of the house. And we didn't have any art," Dwight explained. "So I'd go by the construction site and I'd pick up all this metal left over from the day's work. And at the same time, I taught myself how to weld, I bought a welder. So I started making art for myself. And it got to be a little bit of an obsession."
In the early 1970s, Dwight struck up a relationship with former Colorado Lt. Gov. George Brown, who, hearing of Dwight's artistic acumen, one day asked his friend to make a sculpture of him.
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"He said, 'They want to do a sculpture of me to put in the Capitol and I want you to do the sculpture,'" Dwight recalled. "I said, 'I've never sculpted before in my life, I'd make a fool out of both of us.' And he said, 'You better get your butt down to the library and get a book, because I'm going to change your life. You're going to be one of the greatest sculptors on earth.'"
He laughed at him at the time, but Dwight eventually took Brown's advice and soon became a self-professed "bookworm." Dwight was habitually self-taught throughout his life and that pattern continued with his foray into art. His reading and research motivated him to become a sculptor of mostly Black art and Black history, as did more moving words from Brown.
"He said Black people have been on the continent for well over 300 years. But if someone came in from outer space and wiped out all the human beings, and they started looking around to rebuild the culture, they would never know Black people existed," Dwight said, of a conversation he had with Brown in 1974. "He said, 'You can't go to a park, you can't go to a city square, you can't go to a museum, you can't go anywhere and find Black images. That's why you should become an artist who creates the kind of art to remind people that Black people exist in the United States of America.'"
Dwight took those words to heart. He has since sculpted memorials and busts of Barack Obama, Martin Luther King Jr., George Washington Carver, Rosa Parks, Hank Aaron and countless other historical Black figures, as well as pieces on landmark moments in Black history like the Tulsa "Race Riot" Memorial in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Dwight has earned a reputation as one of the nation's best and most trusted sculptors, especially of Black art, which made his selection to create the James monument a no-brainer for Cris Dosev, the chairman of the General Daniel "Chappie" James Jr. Memorial Foundation.
"He was brought to my attention by the folks over at the (Chappie James Flight Academy)," Dosev said. "Cliff Curtis made mention of the fact that there was an African-American sculptor and he told me to look him up. And when I looked him up I said, 'Holy kamoly. This guy fits every single piece of the puzzle.' It was like a providential match."
Dosev said he also sees Dwight's selection as sending an important message.
"I tell you what we're doing, we're setting an example not only for the people of Pensacola but for the nation by resurrecting the name of Gen. James, because what he personified was a unifying message: 'We're all Americans,'" Dosev said. "'And we all need to strive to make America a better place to live, for everyone who lives in America.'"
On Sept. 9, the Pensacola City Council agreed to fund $250,000 toward the creation of James' statue, and fundraising efforts on behalf of the Chappie James Memorial Foundation to supplement that funding will start in October.
The idea to memorialize James is one that's more than two years in the making, but it's being actualized now as the detail-oriented Dwight gets to work in his Denver studio, curating drafts based on James' facial features, body structure and flight suit uniform.
Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson said the statue will stand at the foot of the bridge on a currently undesignated parcel of grass that sits where the bridge will meet 17th Avenue and split to Bayfront Parkway and East Gregory Street. The elevated memorial area will consist of the James statue, an F-4 Phantom in flight and an 80-foot flag pole that will welcome motorists to Pensacola.
A bill signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in July 2020 designated the bridge's new name as the Gen. Daniel "Chappie" James Jr. Bridge. Dosev said it's unclear when exactly the official renaming of the bridge will take place, but it should happen before the statue is completed, which also has an unknown timeline.
James' family will no doubt be in Pensacola when the time comes to unveil the statue of their family's historic patriarch. His granddaughter, Britt James, will be one of those family members on hand.
"It's full circle in the sense of (Dwight's) own accolades and what it means to the history of aviation and aerospace, especially in the United States for Black America," she said. "So it all makes sense, it just seems like the story is complete. It's the perfect bookend to the bridge story, who Chappie was, and what his pioneering actually did. It set things up for someone like Ed to go as far as he did."
While Dwight and Chappie James crossed paths in an uncomfortable way more than 60 years ago, Dwight's 40-year expedition to learn as much as he could about Black culture so he could in turn immortalize Black history has changed his perspective. Not just on James, but on all things Black history.
Dwight said he's honored to sculpt a monument of someone whose journey through life simply can't be replicated.
"It's a really, really high honor," Dwight said. "When you back off and take a survey of history, and you're fair about it without any personal input, I think putting (Chappie James) up is part of a whole stream of history that we all should be a part of. I'm honored that he's getting what he deserves, because the man was a one-off. There wasn't anyone like Chappie James, white or Black. Everything he earned, he earned, no one gave him a damn thing. And you got to pay homage to that, and that's part of this process, it's part of why I've been doing what I've been doing for 40 years."
Jake Newby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-435-8538.