Barre granite workers upset King memorial will be made in China

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(Host) The centerpiece of a national memorial to honor civil rights leader Martin Luther King Junior will be built in China, by a Chinese artist.

That’s not going over very well in Barre, the central Vermont city that calls itself the Granite Center of the World.

The granite industry says it has the raw material and the local talent to do the job.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Sounds of stone carving studio)

(Dillon) George Kurjanowicz is an artist who works with some very unforgiving material. He carves memorials and statues out of the gray granite that’s quarried nearby.

So when officials from the Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation came to town last year, Kurjanowicz was eager to show off his work.

(Kurjanowiciz) "They showed me a tentative design, which was approximately a five foot tall bust of Dr. King with his arms and shoulders on a 30 foot monolith… And they asked me if this was something I was capable of doing. I of course told them yes I can, I mean this is what I do."

(Dillon) But the King Memorial Foundation eventually selected a Chinese artist Lei Yixin to design the centerpiece of the monument.

The four-acre memorial is planned for the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Organizers are raising $100 million for the project.

The selection of a Chinese artist – and concern that much of the stone could also come from China – has triggered a national backlash.

This week organizers of the opposition came to Barre to meet with local artists and granite companies.

(Young) "We started this movement, my wife and I started this in February, and we started a web site called King is Ours."

(Dillon) Gilbert Young is painter from Atlanta who launched a campaign against what he calls the out-sourcing of King’s memorial.

(Young) "For most Americans they are not aware of the details involved. What happened here, when we say we’re building a monument to Dr. King, we all assume that it’s going to be a monument that’s built here, or fairly built, with representation from the black community. This has not happened. These people failed to chose anyone, who came in first place, here in America."

(Dillon) Gilbert Young says an African-American – or at least an American artist – should have been selected to interpret King’s life.

He learned about the Barre granite industry from Clint Button, a Chelsea native who now works at a sculptor and stone carver in South Carolina.

Button says it mocks King’s legacy to have the memorial made in China.

(Button) "And to have Dr. King memorialized using slave labor is outrageous. It doesn’t take an educated person to understand this. Anybody sees this and says this is wrong."

(Dillon) The King Memorial foundation says its critics have their facts wrong. Harry Johnson is the foundation’s president. He says the project will be overseen by a black-owned architectural firm, and that at least half the rock for the memorial will come from the United States.

(Johnson) "We’re pleased that Dr. King words and Dr. King himself was not just a black hero he was not just an American hero. He was a hero to all the world, and we wanted to make this a piece that anybody could take a part of this, regardless of their skin tone, regardless of their affiliation, but to say they were part of humankind to make this happen. And that’s how we chose the artist that we have to do the sculpting."

(Dillon) Still, the outsourcing of the project hits a raw nerve in Barre. In recent years, the granite industry here has suffered due to low-priced imports from China and India.

Stone carver George Kurjanowicz says he’s disappointed – and not just because he wasn’t chosen for the King memorial.

(Kurjanowicz) "Because the Chinese have been also responsible, along with the Indians, in impacting my business as well. I used to have three sculptors in my studio working. I’m here by myself now just because I simply cannot compete price-wise with a product that’s being manufactured overseas."

(Dillon) The Vermont congressional delegation has also written the King Memorial Foundation asking it to use local granite in the project.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Barre.


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