There was a time when famous men tried to mold Ed Dwight and make him a symbol of a brave new era. They wanted to hurl him at the stars, bring him back and pin medals on him. They wanted to make speeches, saying anything was possible in the America they were trying to bring about—that Ed Dwight, a young black man who grew up poor on a small farm in Kansas, could travel into space, and if that could happen, there were no limits.
It never happened. That was almost a quarter-century ago, and today Dwight, who used to look at the stars, turns his eyes downward as he works in the most earthbound of the arts. His sculptures of the famous have made him rich. This time around, Ed Dwight molds the famous men.
Dwight was a 28-year-old Air Force captain at Travis Air Force Base in California when he got a letter from President Kennedy in 1961 urging him to apply to test-pilot school as a prelude to becoming America’s first black astronaut. A Negro League baseball player’s son, Dwight had been a B-57 pilot for two years, had flown more than 2,000 hours in high-performance jets and had an aeronautical engineering degree from Arizona State.
Dwight had accomplished all this despite being only 5’3¼”, three-quarters of an inch under the then-official minimum for pilots. In preflight training in 1953, he had resorted to desperate measures to get around the height requirement. “Every night I was stretched out,” he says, “and two guys pulled my legs to make me taller. I didn’t grow a goddamn inch.” Eventually a sympathetic major asked Dwight, “How much do you want to fly?” With tears in his eyes, Dwight said, “I breathe airplanes.” The officer answered, “As far as I’m concerned, you’re six feet tall.” Height was never an issue again.
Race, however, was an issue. Having integrated an all-white Catholic high school in Kansas City, Dwight had some experience in being a pioneer. “In 1961 the machinery started rolling to make a black astronaut, not find one,” he says. “Kennedy picked me out of the turnip patch and plopped me in the middle of this.” Dwight passed the first phase of experimental test-pilot training in April 1963. He was in the space-pilot phase when disaster struck: JFK was assassinated and Dwight was rejected for NASA training a few months later, in spite of calls to NASA from Robert Kennedy.
His race may have provided an entrée, but Dwight feels it also worked against him. “The Air Force and NASA felt someone was trying to cram a nigger down their throats,” he says. In his autobiography, Chuck Yeager essentially confirms Dwight’s view. He writes that, as head of the aerospace pilot program in which Dwight was training, “I was caught in a buzz saw of controversy. The White House, Congress and civil rights groups came at me with meat cleavers…. [I was told] ‘Get that colored guy in.’ ” Yeager goes on to say that Dwight wasn’t “a bad pilot, but he wasn’t exceptionally talented either.”
After Kennedy’s death, Dwight received orders assigning him to West Germany. He refused, kicking off a dispute with the Air Force that ended with his resignation in 1966. (It wasn’t until 1983 that the first black American, Guion Bluford, went into space.)
Dwight moved to Denver and spent his first years as a civilian in various jobs. He worked for IBM, ran a chain of barbecue restaurants and got into construction. In the end his childhood love of art prevailed; he enrolled in University of Denver to get his master of fine arts degree. In 1975 George Brown, Colorado’s black lieutenant governor, asked Dwight to create some pieces depicting blacks’ roles in opening up the West. That assignment changed his art and his life.
“There were black cowboys, black pioneers, black jockeys,” says Dwight. “I had never heard of this before.” He began to sculpt the images of these all-but-forgotten pioneers, men and women who had been the Ed Dwights of their day: Isaiah Dorman, a scout who died at the Little Big Horn, Aunt Clara Brown, an early Colorado settler, and others. From there he moved on to Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. His larger-than-life statue of Hank Aaron stands in front of Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium. A few miles away his bronze statue of Martin Luther King Jr. is on view at Morehouse College.
Dwight’s commission for a single piece can exceed $250,000, and his yearly income is, he says, “in the super-high six figures.” Now 53, the sculptor lives in a large English Tudor-style house with his third wife, Barbara, an elementary school principal. Dwight works in a warehouse-size studio, surrounded by bits of bodies waiting to be cast in bronze. Upstairs, though, away from the artifacts of his present, are mementos from his past—old magazine covers with pictures of the young Ed Dwight, wearing his flight suit, standing by an F-104, laughing at the world and looking to the stars.