Sometime in the early 1990s, Larry Paul King was driving home from his night shift as a postal carrier in Chicago when a radio commercial interrupted the hum of music.
“‘Would you like to be a sculptor?’” King remembers the advertisement asking. “‘If so, register for night classes at the College of DuPage.’”
King did, in fact, want to be a sculptor. He had even studied fine art in college. He first attended St. Xavier University in 1956 on a scholarship, but dropped out when his father died. In 1958, King enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago but, again, left before matriculating.
When the late-night promotion blasted through King’s speakers 30 years later, it felt like a sign from the FM gods — if there is such a thing — to revisit his dream before time ran out.
“So, I signed up,” says King.
From 1990 to 1992, King pursued an Associate in Arts from the College of DuPage. He soon retired from his mail route and became just what the radio ad had promised: a sculptor. He showed his abstract pieces across Illinois, sharing a bold and highly conceptual aesthetic. He also taught welding classes at the college.
In 1999, a former student asked King if he would come to Asheville to set up a welding space in her studio. He obliged and fell in love with the “quiet” of the city. A year later, King and his wife, Sue, left Chicago for good. But as the two settled into Asheville at the beginning of the 21st-century boom, they noticed that artists of color were moving out, and fast. “There just wasn’t a venue for them here,” says King.
Fast forward to today, 20 years later. King is now in his eighties and is best known in Asheville for Big and Little Arc, a public art installation that debuted at the River Sculpture Festival in 2007. The piece was made from more than 700 dried bamboo culms and provided the hushed ambience of a fantastic, intimate forest. He still incorporates bamboo in some pieces, as well as cement, many different metals, and highly inspired applications of textiles (Cosmic Florid is shaped around a cotton crinoline).
King has also shown his work at venues including Upstairs Artspace in Tryon and the YMI Cultural Center in downtown district The Block. Until this year, though, his most recent exhibits have been back home in Illinois, because he still believes representation in Asheville’s arts scene is falling short. Marie Cochran, founding curator of the Affrilachian Artist Project, agrees.
“The mainstream arts community, which is predominantly white, isn’t aware of artists of color,” says Cochran. “But we have an integral role to play. Black culture fits into almost every aspect of American life.”
Cochran is also the curator of the new adVANCE: Modernism, Liberation + Black Mountain College. The exhibition features King’s work but also nods to the now obsolete Vance Monument. Fittingly, King will be producing his own rendition of the obelisk — an Egyptian symbol that was co-opted for numerous Confederate monuments across the South.
King describes the creative process behind his piece, which he’s welding from found hardware-store parts: “I thought about all the groups in America that have been put down with a knee pressing against them — Native American tribes, Blacks, Latinos, Asians,” he says. “Then I created a form showing that we rise — we rise and we free ourselves of the pressure.”
Larry Paul King, Asheville. “adVANCE: Modernism, Liberation + Black Mountain College” opens Friday, Feb. 11, at Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center (120 College Street, Asheville). It runs through May 21. For more information, visit blackmountaincollege.org. For more information about the artist, see larrypaulking.com.