Memorial Hall Mural
University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto and the Memorial Hall Art Committee announced at the Board of Trustees June meeting that Philadelphia-based artist Karyn Olivier's artwork proposal has been selected and will be produced this summer in the vestibule at Memorial Hall. The action is pending approval from the Art in Public Places Committee. UK Art Museum Director Stuart Horodner and Associate Vice President for Institutional Equity Terry Allen co-chaired the Memorial Hall Art Committee.
The process of soliciting and approving a project that would help enhance the iconic building and establish a thoughtful dialogue with the controversial 1934 mural by Ann Rice O’Hanlon that is located in the lobby, began in 2016 and involved numerous administrators, faculty, staff and students.
In commissioning new artworks for Memorial Hall, the committee began re-imagining the challenge taken up by O’Hanlon in 1934: to depict Kentucky’s evolution from a frontier state to a modern Commonwealth. The committee looked for works that:
Engage issues of history, race, identity, culture, and diversity
Exemplify a strong concept and skillful use of materials
Contribute to an inclusive educational environment
Over the years, the O’Hanlon mural has been one of many topics in important discussions on inclusion on UK's campus. The mural has elicited a range of responses. On one hand, it is recognized as a unique document of a time in U.S. history when the government engaged artists to create ambitious acts of American storytelling — the Public Works of Art Project, part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. On the other, many argue that the mural misrepresents and sanitizes the imagery of the time it depicts. In doing so, it failed to declare the immorality of slavery and instead minimized the violence and inhumanity that many experienced through subjugation and slavery.
Following a call for artwork proposals last year, two finalists were invited to campus in March to present their proposals and discuss their past works that engage issues of race, representation, and site-specificity. They met with various stakeholders and were given until April to make any changes to their initial proposals. Capilouto attended both of the artists’ talks and was a committed participant in the process.
Work on the new piece is likely to start in late July into early August. Learn more here.
Olivier’s installation acknowledges the architecture of the building and its commemorative function (honoring Kentucky soldiers who died in World War I), and offers a provocative response to the O’Hanlon mural that has been the center of debate.
In her written proposal, Olivier said: “There are eight sections in the mural that contain African-American and Native American figures — a horse carriage driver, a figure in a tree, musicians providing entertainment, four central figures planting, three in the top right corner working the land, two sitting near a pond, several at the train station, and the lone Native American represented in the mural, emerging from a forest. My response to this is as follows: The dome in the vestibule will be gold leafed and will contain images of these ‘displaced’ figures as they are represented in the original mural. The insertion of the figures on the gilded ceiling reinforces the notion or possibility of rebirth — perhaps spiritually, but more importantly through the viewer’s reinvestigation, interrogation and reckoning with our country’s complex histories. Around the base of the dome will read the Frederick Douglass quote, ‘There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.’”
Olivier said the use of gold leaf is often seen in sacred paintings, churches and cathedrals from the Byzantine and Renaissance periods. "I hope one reading of my use of gold leaf within my artwork will serve to elevate the oppressed represented — those who were deemed lowly — to the divine. The imagery in the mural depicts the subjugated performing mundane chores and activities (while neglecting to reveal the servitude and range of horrific acts that kept them there).”
Also as part of Olivier's proposal, portraits of important figures in Kentucky's history will be placed near the building's dome. They include: Chief Red Bird, a Cherokee who lived among white settlers in Clay County until his murder by two Tennessee men. Charlotte Dupuy who was an enslaved African-American woman who filed a freedom suit in 1829 against her master, Henry Clay, then the country’s secretary of state. Peter Durrett, a preacher who founded First African Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1790. Georgia Davis Powers, the first African American to serve in the Kentucky Senate, sponsoring bills prohibiting employment discrimination, sex and age discrimination.
“My intent in adding these portraits is not just to honor these Kentucky heroes and illuminate what history has left shrouded — but that by elevating these figures, their overlooked legacies will shine the light of truth on the racist caricatures that were acceptable ‘histories’ in the original mural," Olivier said.
About the Artist
Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Olivier received her MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art and her bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College. She has exhibited at the Gwangju and Busan Biennials; The Studio Museum in Harlem; Whitney Museum of Art; MoMA P.S.1; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; CAM Houston; The Mattress Factory; and SculptureCenter. She is a recipient of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, the Joan Mitchell Foundation Award, the New York Foundation for the Arts Award, a Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant, the William H. Johnson Prize, the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Biennial Award, a Creative Capital Foundation grant and a Harpo Foundation grant. Olivier is currently an associate professor and head of the sculpture program at Tyler School of Art at Temple University.
The mural – a fresco work by Kentuckian Ann Rice O’Hanlon – was completed in 1934, the result of a commission from the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) formed during the Great Depression.
The idea of the mural was to depict Kentucky’s progress from an agrarian culture to a modern, industrial society and state. Like thousands of other such projects across the country, the foundation for the mural was to promote art on a national basis as a tool for lifting the spirits of a country still facing the ravages of an economic depression.
In doing so, the mural seeks to depict the state’s economic progress, the people from poets to physicians, who made that progress possible, and several important contributions in areas such as education, engineering, science, and medicine.
Over the years, however, many on this campus – and in the broader community – have taken issue with some of the scenes depicted in the mural as well as images that were left out or that were perceived as sanitizing history.
Nearly 90 years after its completion, it is challenging to look at the mural through anything but the prism of our current day. As New York Times reporter Teju Cole suggests in a recent New York Times essay, irrespective of the artist’s intent, we necessarily bring to this work of art our perceptions, our experiences, our point of view. Against that backdrop, the concern, for many, is that the mural does not adequately reflect the violence and inhumanity that many experienced through subjugation and slavery.
Those questions of intent, context and perception have become part of a larger conversation at UK about racial climate and about art throughout the campus.
On November 12, 2015, a group of 24 African-American students met with UK President Eli Capilouto and university officials, presenting a document titled, “African/African-American Student Concerns on Racial Climate.” Objections to the mural were one area of concern and were included in numerous conversations about race on campus as well as in print, broadcast, and social media.
In response, in January 2016, President Capilouto decided to temporarily cover the mural, while simultaneously appointing a committee of faculty, staff, a student, and a community representative to recommend a long-term, comprehensive plan to provide context and consideration for the mural and its presence in our community. This committee included Terry Allen, co-chair; Stuart Horodner, co-chair; Jay Blanton; Anastasia Curwood; Sonja Feist-Price; Nicole Jenkins; Allan Richards; Mary Vosevich; and Quiyana M. Murphy.
On March 24, 2017, the University of Kentucky formally lifted the temporary shroud that for more than a year covered the mural in Memorial Hall.
Among several recommendations, the University:
- Has once again displayed the mural, but began working in a broad-based fashion across the university to ensure that it is fully contextualized for today’s campus and community
- Has installed explanatory story panels in front of the mural that tell the history of the mural and responses to it over time to give a more complete context
- Provides narrative about the mural and responses to it to groups that register for events in Memorial Hall
- Has worked with faculty leadership to include similar narrative in syllabi for courses held in Memorial Hall
- Began work with a conservator to restore and renovate the mural. Renovations already have been taking place at Memorial Hall during the 2016-2017 academic year
- Will continue to work with a conservator to inspect and restore documents with signatures of WWI soldiers
- Has commissioned artistic work to be displayed around the mural to provide even greater context with a strong nod toward work with a Kentucky voice and aesthetic sense
About Ann Rice O'Hanlon
Ann L. Rice was born on June 21, 1908 in Ashland, Kentucky. She attended grade school and high school in Lexington and majored in art at UK, graduating in 1932. She completed graduate work at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) where she met Dick O'Hanlon, her future husband. When the couple returned to Kentucky, she was invited by Edward Rannells, chairman of the UK Art Department, to produce the fresco in Memorial Hall.
O’Hanlon was an artist of her time, experimenting with cubist-inspired modernism and using nature as her inspiration. Like many artists who took part in the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), she adopted a straightforward realistic style that fulfilled the requirements of the program.
After completing the mural in 1934, O’Hanlon returned to California, teaching for many years at Dominican College in San Rafael. She died in 1998, and the home/studio she shared with her husband in Mill Valley was eventually converted into the O’Hanlon Center for the Arts, a venue for exhibitions, poetry readings, workshops, and meditation studies.
Fresco is a process whereby powdered pigments mixed with water are applied onto a wet, lime-plaster ground. Only a certain amount of the wall can be painted each day before the plaster dries, forcing the artist to work quickly and with confidence. Once applied, the image cannot be corrected. Through a chemical reaction between the carbon dioxide in the air and the calcium hydrate in the plaster, calcium carbonate is formed and the pigment bonds with the plaster surface, becoming one with the architecture.
Of the 15,663 works commissioned across the U.S. during the six months of the Public Works of Art Project in 1934, just 42 were frescoes. O’Hanlon’s mural was the first one produced in Kentucky.
The mural has stirred a range of responses over time. It is recognized as a unique document of a time in U.S. history when the government engaged artists to create ambitious acts of visual storytelling. However, some argue that the mural, although it is a subjective piece of art not necessarily meant to document history accurately, misrepresents and sanitizes the imagery of the time it depicts. In doing so, it failed to declare the immorality of slavery and instead minimized the violence and inhumanity that many experienced through subjugation and slavery. The times have changed and in important ways progress has been made. But the debate about racial climate – on this campus and across our country – continues. On November 12, 2015, a group of 24 African-American students met with UK President Eli Capilouto and university officials, presenting a document entitled, “African/African-American Student Concerns on Racial Climate.” Objections to the mural were included in numerous conversations about race on campus as well as in print, broadcast, and social media.
In January 2016, President Capilouto decided to temporarily cover the mural, while simultaneously appointing a committee of faculty, staff, a student, and a community representative to recommend a long-term, comprehensive plan to provide context and consideration for the mural and its presence in our community. His charge to the committee was this:
- Recommend a plan of action for the atrium of this iconic hall, which serves as an important venue for educating our students and welcoming our visitors.
- Determine specifically how best to give a context to this mural that reflects our shared values and the University’s compelling interest in the educational benefit of diversity.
Numerous meetings were held with stakeholders including students, UK Libraries Special Collections staff, and members of the UK Art in Public Places Committee. The result of these rich and lengthy conversations has yielded a strategy of increased communication and technology, the commissioning of new artworks for the space, and the possible rebranding of Memorial Hall. The University lifted the temporary shroud on March 24, 2017.