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Georgia statehouse's MLK statue is 'back to the drawing board' after death of sculptor

The high-profile project to place a Martin Luther King Jr. statue on the grounds of the Georgia Capitol is on hold after the death of the sculptor tapped to lead the project.

Andy Davis of McDonough was commissioned last month to create the statue for the civil rights icon, and he met last week with emissaries from the King Center to work on the design. Davis died late Sunday of injuries sustained in a weekend wreck.

State Rep. Calvin Smyre, who helped coordinate the project, was shaken when reached by phone on Saturday evening after the accident. The two met Thursday at the King Center to discuss the project.

"We have to go back to the drawing board," he said Monday. "I spent four hours with him last week at the King Center. We were cutting him a check this week for materials."

Now, he said, "I'm praying for Andy's family."

The longtime state lawmaker, a Democrat from Columbus, said he’s unsure how the search for a replacement sculpture will proceed – but that there is a desire for the artist to live and work in the state.

State Rep. Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs, said an unnamed “anchor” sponsor for the King statue remains committed to the project. Sketches of the statue, by Davis, were already getting rave reviews, Wilkinson said. He said Davis was planning to complete the statue in time for the King national holiday in January.

“He had just a remarkable design. Everyone was just very excited,” the Sandy Springs lawmaker said. “Andy was willing to do it for cost, as a labor of love.”

The project, which comes after years of lobbying from black leaders to put King's visage on the statehouse grounds, was unveiled by Gov. Nathan Deal last year and repeated in his inaugural speech in January. Deal said in a statement he's "deeply saddened" by Davis' death.

"This tragedy is not only a loss for his family, but for the Henry County community and our state," Deal said. "He leaves behind a legacy of excellent work, and I regret that will not include a statue on our Capitol grounds that many generations of Georgians would have admired. Sandra and I offer our prayers, support and encouragement to his family during this difficult time."

Davis, who was tapped in late June, was a Georgia artist whose signature work was a life-size bronze statue of Ray Charles that stands in Albany, the famed singer’s birthplace. He seemed an interesting pick for the King statue because he was white, but he brushed aside those concerns in an interview with WABE.

“Art is color blind,” Davis said. “Art is not black. It’s not white. It’s not Chinese. It’s not anything. It is what it is. It’s what you bring to it.”

The MLK project's announcement in June was accompanied by a bit of fanfare, and to prepare for it, Deal's office asked Davis for a head shot. He sent over a baby picture from 1963.

You can imagine the confusion among Deal's aides, who wondered why the artist wanted to be depicted as a cooing kid.

His answer: Because people take themselves too seriously.

RELATED: Read and sign the AJC's online guestbook for sculptor Andy Davis

Hood Street Art Center in McDonough has scheduled a memorial event, Master Sculptor Andy Davis Celebration of Life Saturday, July 18at 2 p.m.

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.