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‘The Embrace’ shakes up Boston’s public art scene

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
‘The Embrace’ shakes up Boston’s public art scene
Bostonians visit “The Embrace” by Hank Willis Thomas and MASS Design Group on Boston Common. PHOTO: CELINA COLBY

“The Embrace,” a sculptural monument by artist Hank Willis Thomas and MASS Design Group honoring Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, was officially unveiled on the Boston Common on Friday. The large-form bronze sculpture offers an abstract rendering of the pair embracing, inspired by an image of the couple taken after King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

The sculpture brings a new and dynamic piece of public art to Boston’s portfolio of straightforward statues. The expression of love alludes to the Kings’ life and legacy here in Boston, where the couple met while MLK was studying at Boston University and Scott King was at New England Conservatory. It also speaks to a wider network of love and support that made the Civil Rights movement possible. By depicting the couple’s arms but not their faces, the sculpture becomes a monument to everyone who participated in the movement, an homage also to the larger community that made change possible. 

Visitors take in “The Embrace” on Boston Common. PHOTO: CELINA COLBY

“There are so many monuments that are memorials, but this is intended to really celebrate not only the Kings, but also their legacy and how their legacy plays out in our lives,” says artist Hank Willis Thomas. “I really wanted to make the work a call to action … Through embracing another person, our opportunities grow.”

To that end, “The Embrace” is situated in a new public gathering space called 1965 Freedom Plaza. During the design of the plaza, community members nominated individuals, local and national, who, like King, served as a “voice for the people” between 1950 and 1970. These names, including Melnea Cass, Elma Lewis and many others, link Boston’s artistic and activist community to the Kings. The plaza creates a home for the sculpture, and the King couple is physically and metaphorically surrounded by the community that supported them.

“I wanted to highlight the power and beauty of coming together with another person to manifest our shared goals,” says Willis Thomas. “I am honored to be a part of the team that has built this centerpiece and gathering place in the historic city of Boston, and the location where the Kings met.”

The Boston Common was America’s first public park and boasts a 400-year tradition of public gatherings, including calls for change. On April 23, 1965, MLK delivered a stirring address to a crowd of 22,000 people on the Common, calling for greater equity in Boston. Now a new space has been created for the community to gather, a space charged with the spirit of leaders who came before.

The names of civil rights and social justice leaders are etched into the plaza surrounding the sculpture. PHOTO: CELINA COLBY

“Residents and visitors to the city will now be able to interact with and learn from this piece of public art that truly embodies what we value and strive for as a city — collective action, racial equity, empathy and love,” says Kara Elliott-Ortega, the city’s chief of arts and culture. “We’re thrilled to welcome ‘The Embrace’ into the City’s public art collection and celebrate the collective action and collaborative process that got us to this point.”

The sculpture project was a long time coming. Entrepreneur Paul English contributed the initial funding for the piece in 2017. Then he and co-chair Rev. Liz Walker of Roxbury Presbyterian Church created an art committee of local leaders, including committee co-chairs Barry Gaither, director and curator of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists and special consultant at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and Karin Goodfellow, director of public art for the City of Boston. In 2018, Willis Thomas and MASS Design Group were chosen from 126 artistic teams considered for the project. The final design was approved in spring of 2021 and now, in 2023, the final sculpture has finally been installed and unveiled.

Creating this artwork was a feat in itself. Production occurred amid the height of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns. The 38,000-pound bronze sculpture was cast in 609 pieces, fabricated in Washington state and then transported and installed in Boston. The construction process alone speaks to the power of perseverance and community effort.

And yet, this is just the beginning. The organization Embrace Boston, which partnered with the city of Boston to make this monument a reality, has a much larger vision of dismantling structural racism by working at the intersections of arts and culture, community, research and policy. “The Embrace” is a powerful start, a bold artistic statement and physical space-making for Boston’s communities of color. This bronze jumping-off point will kickstart a whole new legacy of change.

Ekua Holmes, vice-chair of the Boston Art Commission says, “As young people from around the world — but especially here in Boston, encounter “The Embrace,” I hope they see themselves reflected in its bronze patina, feel proud, and know that history moves forward from where they stand today.”