From Almost-Astronaut to Businessman to Sculptor: Ed Dwight's Incredible Journey Runs Through DU
Since age 4, Ed Dwight wanted to be an artist. It was just that some other things got in the way.
Dwight was a Navy pilot and famously the first Black man trained to become an astronaut. He also was an engineer, private pilot, developer, owner of several businesses and a restaurateur with a successful chain of barbecue joints called Rib Cage.
All of that was a worthy distraction to Dwight’s artistic pursuits. It was the long path he took from being told by his career-focused father to pursue engineering to his eventual stint at the University of Denver (MFA ’77).
His time at DU helped launch a decades-long sculpting career that wrought 129 famous monuments, more than 18,000 gallery pieces and the artistic immortalization of the inauguration of America’s first Black president.
Along the way, he met jazz legends, traveled the world, developed a unique sense of artistic style and contemplated the meaning of legacy, all after age 45.
Now 88, the accomplished sculptor’s gallery is one of the largest in Denver.
Dwight will be the commencement speaker for graduate students at 4 p.m. June 10 at Magness Arena.
Dwight’s childhood passion for metalwork and a gnawing creative drive eventually forced a career change, and former Colorado Lt. Gov. George L. Brown, once a graduate student at DU, provided the push.
During his early years in Denver, Dwight regularly hosted house parties, where Brown noticed the abstract sculptures scattered around the premises. Both men hail from Kansas, which sparked a connection between them.
In 1974, Brown needed an artist to sculpt his likeness for the state Capitol. The first Black lieutenant governor in U.S history tapped Dwight for the job.
“(Brown) told me, ‘You’re going to do this because I have a great plan for your future. You’re going to be one of the greatest sculptors that ever lived by the time I get through with you.’ I just laughed at him, but I went and did the sculpture.”
That was the first time the abstract sculptor created a human figure. He checked out a library book “written by some English guy” and followed the steps.
“You do it like you do anything else,” Dwight says. “They ended up with this sculpture of him that’s now in the Capitol building here in Colorado.”
Brown’s influence wasn’t limited to what would become Dwight’s breakthrough art piece. The trailblazing politician, Denver media legend and former Tuskegee Airman — military service further connected the two — gave Dwight an education on Black history in America and lit a passion for Black culture.
Dwight says he grew up going to “white schools.” He didn’t learn about famous Black people until well into adulthood.
“Black people have been on the North American continent for 300-some years or more,” he says. “(Brown) told me, ‘You know, Ed, if the Martians came down and everybody on Earth got annihilated, and they had to reconstruct the culture of America, they would never know that Black people ever existed on American soil. You’re going to change that.’
“I told him he was crazy. I was 42 years old at the time, and he got angry with me. I had lived in this white world.
“He asked me if I knew who Harriett Tubman was, and I said no. He went down this list with Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver. I didn’t know about slavery. I didn’t know about people living in bondage. I didn’t know any of this stuff. He called me pitiful, among other words, and then he went and got two stacks of books.”
Along with the 16 tomes on Black history, Brown pushed Dwight to travel to U.S. cities to find public statues honoring Black contributions to society.
Dwight was operating a private jet service at the time, and he flew up and down the East Coast, from Atlanta to New York and beyond. He photographed more than 4,000 statues and monuments, none of which honored Black contributions.
“I came back and told him, ‘I see what you mean,’” Dwight says. “And that’s when I sold all my companies and enrolled at DU. That’s what really changed my life.
“My family thought I’d lost my mind. But at 45, I was finally doing what I thought I should’ve been doing the whole time.”
With his three kids already in college, Dwight blazed his own path using the GI Bill. After a rejection from the University of Colorado, Dwight turned to the University of Denver, where his wife, Sue, had received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Despite his formal education in engineering, his military background and his business-centric career path — or perhaps, Dwight says, because of it — DU accepted him on a conditional basis for its Master of Fine Arts program.
He took to it immediately. He was a regular at the forge and devoured books on classical artists, gaining valuable historical context. Within a few months, he became a teaching assistant, sometimes lecturing on sculpture, pulling from a deep well of childhood passion.
On his childhood farm in Kansas, Dwight would join his grandfather on a horse- and mule-pulled cart to gather scrap metal for projects.
That was his introduction to crafting things from metal, something that carried into adulthood with a few twists. As a developer, Dwight would travel to construction sites and gather scrap metal. Instead of a cart, he piled it into the back of a Mercedes Benz.
The practical application and expressive energy were further shaped at DU, honed against an education of creative refinement and art history.
“My time at DU was incredibly meaningful,” Dwight says. “I’ve actually been an artist all my life. All this other stuff I’ve done has been a diversion from my art. When I got seduced — and I mean seduced into going into the art business for real — I didn’t really know anything about art.
“DU introduced me to the history of art, the old masters. I didn’t know all these incredible artists existed or how it all fit together. It taught me how all of that impacted art today.
“My time at DU was the most enlightening part of my early career. I had this global feel, but it had to do with space, politics and all these other things. I had no idea of the impact of art on governments, institutions, all the way down to private collectors.”
Dwight’s next breakthrough was a series of sculptures of jazz musicians for the National Park Service –“Jazz: An American Art Form.” Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Charlie Parker were among the 70 bronzes featured in the St. Louis Arch Museum.
From there, it was one monument and sculpture after another. Dwight says he prides himself on his speed and precision, turning out multiple large pieces each year.
Locally, his most notable piece is the memorial for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in City Park. His statue of Bill Smith, Denver’s former public works manager, sits outside Denver International Airport.
Some of his most noteworthy works elsewhere include:
- The Black Revolutionary War Patriots Memorial in Constitution Gardens in Washington, D.C.
- The African American History Monument on the South Carolina statehouse grounds, a controversial addition in 2001 that stands long since the Confederate flag was removed in 2015.
- The Gateway to Freedom International Memorial to the Underground Railroad, a key piece of the Phillip A. Hart Plaza in downtown Detroit.
- His statue of famous slugger Hank Aaron, first erected at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in 1982, then moved with the Atlanta Braves to Turner Field in 1997, where it remains even after the club moved to a stadium in the suburbs.
All those creations set the stage for one of Dwight’s most famous works — his immortalization of former President Barack Obama. The national touring exhibit, The Inauguration of History and Hope, featured life-size bronzes of President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, daughters Sasha and Malia, and Chief Supreme Court Justice John Roberts, who gave the oath of office that day.
It almost didn’t happen that way.
Dwight had met Obama before his presidency when the sculptor was hired to create a series for the Chicago Blues District in 2007. A councilman introduced him to the U.S. senator, and Dwight still laughs about his response.
“(Obama) said, ‘You don’t have to introduce him; everybody knows the great Ed Dwight.’ All I could think at the time was that this dude was full of it. That charisma, this dude, it was a really funny experience. But at the time, I got to know him a little bit. I wouldn’t classify myself as a close personal friend of his, but I got to understand him a little bit.”
The day after Obama was elected president in 2008, Dwight got a call from one of his major collectors, Doug Morton, who said he had a business opportunity. The pitch was one word: “Obama.”
Morton asked Dwight to craft a series of sculptures depicting Obama’s inauguration. Dwight hesitated, wanting to see how Obama’s presidency progressed before he cast it in bronze.
“(Morton) told me, ‘I don’t care how much it costs, you’re going to do it.’ I caved pretty quickly. When Doug wants something done, he finds a way.”
Dwight researched depictions of inaugurations through history, from photos to artistic interpretations, then reviewed images from Obama’s inauguration to create the sculptures.
The exhibit opened at the Colorado History Museum, then made stops all over the country, including at multiple Smithsonian Institution museums in Washington, D.C.
One of Dwight’s main focuses now is Ed Dwight Studios, at 3434 E. 43rd Ave. in Denver. The 25,000-square-foot center houses Dwight’s studio, gallery, foundry and research library. There, he creates art and mentors young artists.
“I’m getting so old now, and you think about this legacy stuff,” Dwight says. “When I was doing all this stuff, I wasn’t thinking about the legacy part of it. I never thought about the overall impact.
“But since then, I’ve had at least 10 PhD candidates focused on my body of work. I never considered the legacy even though I had people always reminding me … You’ve got to let people know what you did and how you did it. I’m just now getting into that. It’s kind of late, by the way, but that’s how life goes. I’ve been so damn busy making all this art.”
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