Take a look at Ed Dwight’s résumé—Air Force test pilot, first-ever African-American astronaut candidate, computer systems engineer at IBM, founder of one of Denver’s largest real estate and construction companies—and you’d never guess that his real passion has always been art. Dwight, who has known since age 2 that he wanted to be an artist but didn’t make it a full-time career until 1978, is best known today for his sculptures commemorating notable African-Americans (including Denver’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, one of his more than 100 public memorials). We caught up with him on one of the rare days he wasn’t traveling for shows.
How did you know you wanted to be an artist when you were just a child? I would sit in my high chair tracing the cartoons in newspapers, so my mom put me in art classes, then got me a library card when I was 4. When I wasn’t reading about airplanes, I was reading about Picasso and Bernini and great Renaissance artists. My dream was to become a great artist. I opened a commercial sign shop at 14, and got a full scholarship to the Kansas City Art Institute.
Were you always interested in airplanes? I lived on a farm adjacent to an airport; I went there every day when I was 5 or 6 to watch the planes. When they came back dirty, I got a nickel or dime to clean them. I was fascinated about where they had been, and where the hell they were going when they left. But it was a wild, crazy dream. Kansas City was segregated, and flying an airplane was out of the question in the world I lived in. Then one day, on the cover of the newspaper was a black pilot from Kansas City who had just been shot down in Korea. So I applied for pilot training, but at the recruiting office they said, “You’re too short and you stutter.”
So how did you become a pilot? The library had a shelf of military manuals like the kind they gave to student pilots. I took the courses by myself for three years. When they sent me and 32 other guys to Denver, I was the only one who passed the (Air Force) exam. I only missed two questions. The Air Force declared me a genius, although I lost 32 friends. I was an over-compensator because I’m really short, so I worked twice as hard and got promoted fast and flew more than anyone else. When the president was looking for an astronaut, I had an engineering degree, had graduated cum laude and all my reports were outstanding, so my card was the only one that fell out.
When did art come back into your life? Twenty years after I left the service, IBM asked me to decorate a new building, but everything I brought in, they said, “No, that’s not us.” So one day, I took 200 issues of IBM’s magazine and, with my five kids, made collages of IBM’s own images. Then I did paintings of them; they said it was exactly what they were looking for and asked, “Where did you find this artist?”
How has flying influenced your art? It has to do with visual perception and multitasking. There’s nothing more visually challenging than flying airplanes during all weather. You’re flying over farm fields where different crops have different colors. You can see deserts, how the sky meets the earth and the changing color palette of the sky at different times of the day. A lot of astronauts become inclined to do art because of the patterns in their brains when they come back down.
What do you hope to evoke with your art? People call me at godawful times, standing in the middle of a memorial crying, saying, “This is so powerful.” Even the former grand wizard of the KKK told me, “I have never looked at life through a black man’s eyes, but you made me do it.” He was almost crying. That’s why I keep going.