Pine Bluff, Ark. “He’s like a walking artifact,” said Marcus Dennis, an incoming freshman looking to major in art. “It’s surreal to actually meet someone that created such beautiful things with his mind and his hands.” Dennis has met several artists – none of them were minorities. He was understandably excited to get to meet this particular artist.
Dennis was among onlookers with cellphone in hand to watch and capture the moment renowned artist Edward Dwight, Jr. officially marked the bust he sculpted of the late Pearlie S. Reed. Reed was an AM&N College (now UAPB) alumnus and Assistant Secretary of Agriculture for the United States Department of Agriculture (2008-2012). Reed was one of only two persons nationally who started their career as a student trainee with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resources Conservations Service) and rose to the position of chief of NRCS. Reed was also the founder of the National Organization of Professional Black Natural Resources Conservation Service Employees (NOPBNRCSE).
Before signing the bust, Dwight interacted with guests and was overwhelmed by the reception. He recounted many stories, one of them being about how he become the first African American trained to be an astronaut. As the crowd of students, faculty, staff, and administrators followed him into University Museum and Cultural Center, he reflected on the turning point that would permanently alter the course of his life.
Dwight said he had only attended Caucasian schools and until he was 42, thought he was Caucasian.
“I just thought I had a tan,” quips Dwight. “I lived in this white world, went to all white schools, and entered the Air Force, which was all white at the time.”
When he left the military, Dwight moved to Denver and made a living running his five companies that included an interior decorating firm, construction company, and executive aviation company among others. He was doing well and spending time with affluent individuals. When George Brown, the first Black Lieutenant Governor of Denver was elected in 1974, Dwight was approached by him to do a bust for display at the state capitol. Dwight had been welding pieces of found items from his construction company together, however, he did not consider himself an artist.
In spite of that, Lieutenant Governor Brown admonished Dwight to teach himself to model and sculpt.
“He [Lt. Gov. Brown] said you’re going to do this,” recalls Dwight, who says he responded in disbelief. “You’re going to stop all of this other stuff you’re doing. I have to reorient your purpose in life.”
Brown also urged Dwight to fly across the country in search of black representation in art. Noting that African Americans had been in the country 350 years by then, there was a huge lack of presence in sculpture. Because he had not been taught black history, Dwight was unaware of slavery and the contributions of African Americans – something he admits angered him. He was admonished by Brown to create sculpture that represented everything African Africans had done since arriving in the United States. Over 100 sculptures later, Dwight continues to work toward that goal.
“Once I did [my] first sculpture, I never looked back,” Dwight said. “It just all started coming to me as I needed it, which means me that I was meant to do it.”
Taking about six months to complete, the Pearlie Reed bust was dedicated in 2017 during a special event to honor Reed and his contribution to Agriculture. Paid for by the National Organization of Professional Black Natural Resources Conservation Service Employees, he sculpture is made of cast bronze and sits atop a wooden stand in the foyer of R.C. Childress Hall. Dwight has sculpted numerous great works of celebratory African American art, including International Monuments to the Underground Railroad in Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Ontario; a Dr. Martin Luther King Memorial in Denver’s City Park.