Cumming resident and internationally recognized sculptor Gregory Johnson is currently working on a new statue of the late Congressman John Lewis to be placed among other monuments to U.S. civil rights leaders in Atlanta’s Peace Park.
Peace Park, or the Rodney Cook Sr. Park, located near the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta’s historic Vine City neighborhood, will feature a library containing 10,000 volumes from Black authors provided by the CT Vivian and Martin Luther King, Jr. families, two museums teaching Georgia’s history with peaceful traditions, community programs and activities, and more.
Johnson said that his statue of John Lewis will be one of two statues on display when the park first opens in early fall. The National Monument Foundation, which commissioned Johnson to create the statue, plans to display up to 18 others in the park in the future.
The foundation reached out to Johnson to create the over 7-foot-tall, 800-pound statue because of his nearly 30 years of experience in sculpting. The award-winning local artist has created and displayed commissioned pieces across the U.S. and even internationally.
Johnson is also known for his recognizable, life-like sculptures, which many in Georgia saw his talent for when he unveiled his statue of World War I hero Eugene Bullard at the Museum of Aviation late last year.
Johnson said that he started working on the statue of Lewis earlier in May — just a couple of months before Lewis died from pancreatic cancer on July 17.
“He did get a chance to see a photograph of the clay sculpture in the rough,” Johnson said. “As a matter of fact, all of the civil rights families got to see it, and they were thrilled. He was thrilled.”
Johnson had hoped that he could have invited Lewis to his studio in Cumming to look at the piece in person once it was more complete, but Lewis died only four days after Johnson sent him the invitation.
“I mean none of us had any idea to know how far along the disease had progressed,” Johnson said, “but we all knew he was doing his best to hang on.”
Michael Bond, an Atlanta City Council member and Lewis’ godson, did have an opportunity to come by Johnson’s studio and see the statue. He said that “it looks just like the guy,” and he continued to speak to Johnson about how much Lewis meant to him and to so many others.
The statue depicts Lewis standing strong with his arm up, waving at an imagined crowd. He has what Johnson described as a look of determination.
“If you read his book ‘Walking in the Wind,’ you get tired by the end of the book. He’s had the donkey beat out of him 40 times, 50 times. He’s been in three or four prisons, five or 10 jails. In the hospital two or three times,” Johnson said. “So I mean this guy really was a frontline figure. So you see that determination in his face and in his stance.”
The artist was originally going to model the statue after a photo of Lewis walking, but he ended up scraping the idea. He said it gave him the idea that Lewis was walking away, saying goodbye to the world.
“This composition has his feet firmly planted. He’s going nowhere,” Johnson said. “And by that, I mean his thoughts. It’s already too late to turn the hand of all of the progress we’ve made back.”
The statue will be attached to a 5-foot-tall display, which will place the statue at around 13 feet from the ground to the tip of Lewis’ finger. Johnson said that he is proud to be able to contribute the statue, memorializing Lewis and his philosophy for many years to come.
“I feel like I’ve worked my whole life to get here,” Johnson said. “It’s kind of a wonderful coming together.”