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U.S. icon outsourced, critics say

Times Staff Writer

Someday, a great monument in Washington may bear the name of Lei Yixin. For now, you can find him down a pockmarked road in a grungy industrial suburb of this Chinese provincial capital.

The monument won’t be built to honor Lei, who is scarcely famous in his own hometown, much less the United States. It is being built in memory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and will rise along Washington’s Tidal Basin, between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials.

Lei’s role will be to carve the statue of King that will be the centerpiece of the tribute. His selection as sculptor for the prominent memorial honoring the civil rights leader has outraged some who believe that an African American, or at least an American, should have gotten the job.

“This is an AMERICAN monument -- not a Communist Chinese one!!” declared one entry in a website, kingisours.com, that is devoted to the controversy. Said another, “Can I just say one word? ‘Outsourcing.’ ”

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The outcry over the King statue recalls an earlier uproar over the choice of a young Asian American sculptor, Maya Lin, to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. In the case of the King statue, critics of Lei have received a boost from CNN’s Lou Dobbs, who recently asked David Hamilton, a member of the committee who picked the sculptor, “What in the world were you folks thinking?”

A prominent African American sculptor who says he was pushed aside in favor of Lei believes he knows the answer. The sculptor, Ed Dwight, who also holds the distinction of being America’s first black astronaut, says the backers of the King memorial told him they hoped the choice of a Chinese sculptor would persuade the Chinese government to give $25 million to the King memorial fund, which has a target of $100 million.

A spokeswoman for the King memorial foundation said that was not true. “We have had no discussion with the Chinese government prior to or post the sculptor selection,” Rica Orszag said in an e-mail. “We have had no internal discussions about a contribution from the Chinese government.”

The decision to select Lei, she added, was based solely “on his artistic ability and experience carving large-scale granite projects.... We did not select a sculptor based on politics, country of origin or financial incentives.”

The man at the center of this hullabaloo could hardly be less ruffled. Earthy, reflective and unabashed, with stringy, shoulder-length hair, Lei, 53, is one of a small number of sculptors recognized as “masters” by the Council of China, in effect making him a living national treasure.

He is a man deeply rooted in his place. Changsha, a steamy river town in central China, is the place where Mao Tse-tung spent his formative years as a student and, later, a teacher. Mao’s imprint remains strong here.

During the Cultural Revolution, when Lei was a boy, his parents were targeted for being intellectuals. In his teen years Lei was sent to the countryside to work as a farm laborer instead of going to high school. Perhaps in rebellion, he became a voracious reader, favoring books that had been banned, including a Russian artist’s sketchbook. That rekindled a childhood yearning to become an artist.

Later, when he realized his dream, he was commissioned to carve busts of Mao, whose policies had caused the Lei family’s troubles.

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Lei’s status as a master sculptor, which comes with a lifetime stipend, hasn’t given him widespread fame, although he has carved and cast many prominent statues. But it has insulated him from some of the petty political and bureaucratic pressures that many Chinese artists face.

And it hasn’t hurt his self-esteem.

‘I can do better’

Although sympathetic to his American detractors, Lei remains serenely confident that he was the best choice for the job as King’s sculptor.

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“They love Martin Luther King -- I understand,” he said with a deep, tobacco-charred voice during an interview in his loft office, part of a large studio compound he has built in the shell of an abandoned plastics factory. “But....”

He rose and led a visitor to a wall plastered with photographs of King.

“OK, here,” he said, pointing to pictures of two statues of the assassinated civil rights leader, one in Buffalo, N.Y., the other at Morehouse College in Atlanta, King’s alma mater. With his glasses perched halfway down his nose, Lei’s eyes registered something between distaste and disdain.

“These sculptures were done by Americans,” he said. “It’s not fair that I judge them, but you can tell for yourself. I’ve seen sculptures of Martin Luther King in America, and none of them was perfect. I think I can do better.”

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The King memorial, which is expected to be completed in 2008 or 2009, was authorized by legislation President Clinton signed in 1996. A foundation to build it was formally established two years later. In September 2000, a design submitted by the ROMA Design Group of San Francisco was selected from more than 900 entrants.

The ROMA design featured elements taken from King’s speeches, such as a “mountain of despair” and a “stone of hope,” and included a statue of King gazing toward the Jefferson Memorial. Dwight, who has designed about 90 memorials, a number of them in honor of King, was hired to design the statuary. But Dwight says he acknowledged from the outset that he couldn’t sculpt large pieces of granite, and suggested that the design committee find someone to work under him who could.

Enter Lei.

In May 2006, Lei was invited to participate in a stone-carving forum in St. Paul, Minn., which is a sister city to Changsha. A website promised: “Big blocks of stone. Sculptors with chisels. Six weeks of creativity.”

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Lei wasn’t much interested. He speaks no English and doesn’t care for foreign food, which he defines as any food made outside Hunan province. But his wife insisted, and so he went. As it turned out, so did a search team for the King memorial, including Dwight. The group saw Lei’s work, found him taking a nap on a nearby lawn, woke him and asked if he’d be interested in sculpting Martin Luther King.

“I was very excited,” Lei recalled. “I’d heard about Martin Luther King. I knew he was a civil rights advocate.” But he didn’t realize the significance of the project. Eventually, he was shown a map; his excitement turned to astonishment.

“I realized how important it was, and that this would be in the political center of the United States, like Tiananmen Square in China,” he said. “I couldn’t believe they’d give such an important job to me. They asked me, can I do it? I said, ‘No problem.’ They said, ‘Do you have the granite?’ I said, ‘Of course we do.’

“I think Americans have a very accepting culture,” he added, “because they gave me this big and important project.”

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The acceptance of Americans has its limits, though. Just ask Lin, the Ohio-born Chinese American whose selection as designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1981 provoked controversy based on both her age and her ethnicity.

The choice of Lei immediately rubbed some people wrong, partly because of who he was and partly because of who he wasn’t: an African American. Making things messier was the fact that Dwight, who had been negotiating a contract as “sculptor of record” on the project, was relieved of his duties after raising objections about an early tweak of his design by Lei.

Nor did it quiet the critics when reports in the spring said Lei planned to carve the statue out of Chinese granite, not granite from King’s native Georgia or elsewhere in the United States. (Lei says the Chinese granite has already been selected; the foundation says it is still talking to American granite quarries and hasn’t made a decision.)

On Sunday, a delegation from the foundation, along with U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), surveyed granite at Stone Mountain, Ga., which King mentioned in his “I Have a Dream” speech.

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Even some Chinese artists aren’t completely sold on Lei’s talents. “Lei was merely lucky,” said Guo Xincong, a sculptor from Weifang and a member of the China Artists Assn. “He was attending this symposium in U.S. and was picked up by Americans.... It’s a very simple job, and I think many sculptors can do it. He’s not among the best sculptors in China. I think he’s between the first and second levels of good sculptors.”

‘Slap in the face’

Gilbert Young, an African American artist who lives in King’s hometown, Atlanta, said the news that a Chinese man had been picked for the job “was just a slap in the face.” He started the “King Is Ours” website to bring attention to the issue.

“We’ve been sold out; our culture has been sold out,” Young said in a telephone interview. “I don’t know how we can give this job to someone who doesn’t even believe in our form of government.”

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Lei hasn’t publicly discussed his political views, except to say that he admires King’s vision and doesn’t much care for government meddling with artists. But Young is primarily concerned with the symbolism of someone from China getting a commission to build a monument of immense significance to African Americans.

As things stand, he said, the King memorial ought to have a big sign stamped on it: “Made in China.”

Harry E. Johnson, a Houston lawyer who is president of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, insisted that Young’s arguments were wrongheaded on several counts. First, he said, Lei is not the only sculptor involved. After Dwight left the project, the foundation brought in two Americans, Jon Lockhart and Ed Hamilton, to oversee Lei’s work. (As “sculptor of record,” Lei might ordinarily expect his name to go on the monument, but foundation officials said that hasn’t been determined yet.)

Second, Johnson said, it is entirely appropriate to have a Chinese sculptor participate in a project honoring King, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who influenced civil rights movements around the world.

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“Dr. King stood for all mankind,” he said.

But none of that is the real point, he said, a note of exasperation creeping into his voice. “Lei was chosen not because of Dr. King’s message,” Johnson said. “Lei was chosen because he can carve stone that’s 30 feet high.”

mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com

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Gu Bo of The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.


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