Martin Luther King, Jr. is an important figure for John Wilson and the subject of two of his major public commissions. One is on permanent display in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, DC, and the other is an 8-foot tall commission in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Park (1982) in Buffalo, New York for which this maquette (or model) was created. Wilson was selected during national competitions to create both portraits. Coretta Scott King, who served on the advisory committee for the Capitol Building commission, said that Wilson’s design was chosen because it captured the striking qualities of her late husband’s character and physical expression.
In his own words, Wilson described that his intent was not to execute “a photographic likeness, but rather a universal significance. I wanted people to be moved by the sense of this man’s connection to humanity.” The work references Buddhist, Olmec, and Easter Island colossal heads, as well as the bold, graphic compositions of Mexican muralists.