Museum Renovation Brings Sculptor Back to Memphis

By Bill Dries

Construction sounds coming from a museum can be jarring, even when you know the exhibits are protected or have been moved.

A worker with Flintco LLC prepares the 7,000-pound bronze sculpture “Movement To Overcome” to be moved to temporary storage.

(Photo: Bill Dries)

For Michael Pavlovsky, there were mixed feelings Wednesday, Dec. 5, as he came to Memphis to supervise the moving next week of his two-piece, 13-foot-by-26-foot, 7,000-pound bronze sculpture that has been in the lobby of the National Civil Rights Museum since it opened in 1991.

“It’s sort of like going back in time … actually seeing and rethinking how we actually installed the piece at that time in terms of the hardware that was used and where the location of the anchor bolts were,” said Pavlovsky, a Fort Worth, Texas, sculptor who spoke in the courtyard of the museum where visitors can still see the museum annex across Mulberry Street and walk onto the balcony where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968.

Pavlovsky was last at the museum approximately 10 years ago. In the courtyard this week, he remembered features from 20 years ago like the laser beam tracing the path of the bullet from the window of the South Main Street boarding house where the shot was fired to the balcony.

The feature didn’t last very long after the opening of the museum. The courtyard also had a gated entrance at the time where tickets were sold. That too has changed with a plaza on South Main where a building once stood that leads into the courtyard.

What is constant is Pavlovsky’s definition of what he was trying to do with the collection of human figures rising from and making their way on both sides of a narrow divide between the pieces. His description of his goal is the same as it was in May 1991 when the sculpture was lowered into place in the lobby before the roof and skylight were then added.

“The work is about the leaders of the civil rights movement,” he said. “But even more so, on a broader scale and a more accurate scale, it’s about the anonymous individuals that we know nothing about now that lived the civil rights struggle and participated in it. They are forgotten about. But the hundreds of images of human figures on that sculpture represent those anonymous individuals. That’s what makes it an epic approach to the work.”

Just feet from the balcony, workers from general contractor Flintco LLC were removing windows from the museum’s entrance and preparing a wooden platform for the move of “Movement to Overcome,” Pavlovsky’s work.

Another worker with a drill was cutting spaces in the black bronze surface for the straps and braces that will lift the two pieces out of the lobby once the bolts securing it to the floor are unscrewed.

Pavlovsky was there to show them where to cut, which is where he originally designed the openings for the initial move into the museum.

“It’s as much technical, I guess, as anything else,” he said. “But on a philosophical level, it’s a little bit bothering I guess that we’re having to kind of do some surgery on the sculpture in a sense.”

The openings will be welded closed again when the sculpture returns to a much different setting.

“Movement to Overcome” will be moved to an undisclosed location somewhere in the city during the $27 million renovation of the museum built on the site of the Lorraine Motel.

Pavlovsky won a $400,000 international competition by the Hyde Family Foundations to create the wall sculpture.

After the museum’s opening, other commissions followed including a set of five bronzes, including “River Circle” and “River Arch” along Middle Five Mile Creek in Dallas. He also created the “Birth of Love” sculpture at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden and “Coming Home,” a veterans memorial in Grapevine, Texas, at the town’s train depot where World War II soldiers went to war and returned from war.

Pavlovsky considers the Memphis work his most notable.

“It’s always been quite an honor to me. I was inspired from above to come up with this concept. It’s a concept that addresses universal human rights and the struggle for that worldwide as well as the American civil rights movement,” he said. “Viewers can go up to that piece and they can sort of in a sense see themselves in it and think about where they were during that time and what they were doing.”