Karen Tam, Associated Press
Art handlers position Michael Richards' sculpture "Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian" in Raleigh, N.C.

RALEIGH, N.C. — Michael Richards' life came to a sudden, violent end in his World Trade Center studio. For a time, it looked as though the Sept. 11 terrorist attack had destroyed one of his most important works as well.

Organizers of a Richards' exhibit, which continues through March 7 at the North Carolina Museum of Art, tried fruitlessly for nearly two years to locate the Jamaican-born sculptor's "Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian," which they felt was pivotal to the collection.

It was only when they had given up hope, shortly before the exhibition opened this fall, that a relative's apologetic phone call gave the museum its centerpiece. The sculpture was stored in a cousin's garage in Mount Vernon, N.Y.

"Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian" joined Richards' "Winged" and 90 other flight-inspired artworks in "Defying Gravity: Contemporary Art and Flight." The show is the museum's tribute to the Wright brothers' first flight Dec. 17, 1903, near Kitty Hawk.

Richards, 37, had a studio on the 92nd floor of the trade center's Tower One and spent the night of Sept. 10, 2001, there.

"Tar Baby" was a seminal piece for Richards, according to his dealer, Genaro Ambrosino. His death meant that the piece would be his best remembered "for the creepiest reason that you can think of," said Ambrosino, director of the Ambrosino Gallery in Miami.

The sculpture was a body cast of the artist, the figure pierced with airplanes, a parachute on its back. The eyes are closed, face pointed heavenward, arms at the side of the body with palms outstretched.

It was one of several pieces that Richards did in tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen, the nation's first black military pilots who served in the Air Force in World War II.

The museum had its eye on the piece as early as the summer of 2001. Organizers began writing to the lawyer for Richards' estate the following winter, seeking permission to use the sculpture.

But his distraught family didn't respond. As months passed, many assumed "Tar Baby" was lost.

This fall, a cousin, Dawn Dale, who had seen one of the museum's letters, found it again.

It turned out that the sculpture was stored in another cousin's garage. It was retrieved and shipped to the museum in a custom-built crate.

"Tar Baby" was not only Richards' best work, but the one that meant the most to him, Ambrosino said. The title refers both to St. Sebastian, a soldier who was shot with arrows when he refused to deny his faith, and to the Southern folk tale of Br'er Rabbit's entanglement with a pitch-coated doll.

"That airman represents for him the real hero for black people," Ambrosino said. "And the fact that the sculpture is of man going to heaven, it's like a redemption. And at the same time, the planes pierce the body like the arrows pierce St. Sebastian's body.

"Although it was about death, it was more about liberation, freedom, being able to escape. It was a sad message because of what it meant historically. But it was a very positive message at the same time because it represented a step ahead from slavery.