Michael Rolando Richards was a profound African American sculptor of Jamaican and Costa Rican ancestry who was killed on Sept. 11, 2001 during the World Trade Center attack while in his art studio on the 92nd Floor of the Twin Towers. He was born in Brooklyn, NY but raised in Kingston, Jamaica. He graduated with honors from Excelsior High School and then went on to receive a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Queens College and a Master of Arts from New York University.
He was best known for two sculptures that he was able to create and finish before he was taken away from us in the prime of his artistic life. The first work is entitled “Are You Down” and is located in Franconia, MN at Franconia Sculpture Park. Franconia Sculpture Park is a innovative community arts organization that provides residence and work space to emerging and established artists. “Are You Down” featured three sculptures of Tuskegee Airmen and is best described by Glenn Gordon below.
“…a tableau of three nearly life-sized human figures. Three parachutists fallen from the sky, they sit disconsolate on the ground in what appear (once the snow has melted to reveal them) to be puddles of tar. Backs turned to one another, the figures form a triangle about twelve feet on a side. Within the triangle is a large bulls-eye flat on the ground, the target where the men had aimed to land. Their heads clad in close-fitting leather aviator helmets, their shirts torn from the drop, the figures represent three downed aviators from the storied, all-black Tuskegee Airmen’s Squadron of the Second World War, men whose images Richards (using himself as his model) returned to in his work obsessively, again and again. They speak not so much of the exhilaration of flight as of dreams of freedom crashed to Earth.”
Currently, there are plans to have this sculpture cast in bronze, so that it may be a permanent part of Franconia Sculpture Park and serve as a memorial to the legacy of Michael Richards. This would make it the only permanent sculpture in the park.
There is also some talk of the Franconia Community creating a grant entitled, “The Michael Richards Fellowship”, that would be given yearly to a deserving artist.
Michael Richards had received several fellowships during his lifetime. In 2000, he received the Franconia Sculpture Park/Jerome Fellowship in 2000. It was during this time that he created the “Are You Still Down” piece that is now displayed in the park. He was also a recipient of a Fellowship from the Lower Manhattan Arts Council. This fellowship is what provided him with the “Studio in the Sky” in the World Trade Center where he was ultimately murdered.
The work that Michael Richards is best know for, however, is “Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian”. This sculpture featured a Tuskegee Airman portrayed as St. Sebastian and was a part of his “Tuskegee Airmen Collection” that he spent over 10 years creating. St. Sebastian was an early Christian martyr and the patron saint of soldiers and athletes because of his physical endurance. St. Sebastian was killed for protecting captured Christians he was supposed to imprison. St. Sebastian was executed by being shot full of arrows. However, in this sculpture it was a Tuskegee Airman who was was being pierced by multiple airplanes. “Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian” measures 7 feet tall and is made out of resin and steel. Michael Richards actually cast his own body in plastic resin to create this sculpture and others.
“Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian” is currently located at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, NC and was initially presented in the prestigious “Passages: Contemporary Art in Transition” by Deidre Scott.
It was this work that led to Michael Richards being considered the “…most prolific artist to come through The Studio Museum A-I-R program…” by Franklin Sirmans.
This famous piece was almost prophetic because it was airplanes that actually took the life of Michael Rolando Richards in 2001. His work is best described by Christine Kim as “…a synthesis of the 1970′s Black Arts Movement in which he grew up and the multiculturalism prevalent in his formative years as a student and artist…”. Jorge Daniel Veneciano, who organized Richards’ exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1996, pointed out that the artist’s reference to flight worked on two levels: the flight away from repression and the flight toward redemption.
Michael Rolando Richards was survived by his father Fred Richards, brother Errol Richards, sisters Faye Henry and Maxine Findlay, and his former fiancee, Christie Dinham.
In Memory of Michael Richards: A page by Franconia Sculpture Park that features a slideshow that consists of pictures of Michael Rolando Richards’ “Are You Down” sculpture.
Michael Richards Obituary: An obituary published by The Independent in the United Kingdom