Memorial Hall Mural
The University of Kentucky presented two talks with nationally recognized artists, who have designed concepts for art to be featured in two vaulted spaces in the vestibule of Memorial Hall.
Karyn Olivier and Bethany Collins’ proposals are the final selections in a process seeking artworks from artists across the U.S. by the UK Memorial Hall Art Committee, who are looking for site-specific installations that will establish a rich aesthetic and conceptual dialogue with the building itself and the mural by Ann Rice O’Hanlon that occupies a large wall in the main lobby. Over the years, the O’Hanlon mural has been one of many topics in several important discussions on inclusion.
O’Hanlon’s mural has stirred 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, some 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.
In commissioning new artworks for Memorial Hall, the committee is re-imagining the challenge taken up by O’Hanlon in 1934: to depict Kentucky’s evolution from a frontier state to a modern Commonwealth. As part of that charge, the artists may interpret the complex realities of Kentucky and the United States today.
The committee is looking for works that:
- engage issues of history, race, identity, culture, and diversity;
- exemplify a strong concept and skillful use of materials; and
- contribute to an inclusive educational environment.
“No single artwork will address all of the ideas and emotions that people have about the mural at Memorial Hall. What we want is a thoughtful new work that can expand the conversation about the legacies of Kentucky and the United States, and for something commissioned in 2018 to address the complexities of identity and place in the past as well as the present,” said Stuart Horodner, co-chair of the committee and director of the UK Art Museum.
Individuals wishing to share their ideas on either of the art presentations are encouraged to email the committee at MemHallArtCom@uky.edu.
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.
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.
Among several recommendations, the university:
- Has once again displayed the mural, but is 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 (also included on this website) that tell the history of the mural and responses to it over time to give a more complete context
- Will include narrative about the mural and responses to it to groups that register for events in Memorial Hall
- Will work with faculty leadership to include similar narrative in syllabi for courses held in Memorial Hall
- Will 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 work with a conservator to inspect and restore documents with signatures of WWI soldiers
- Will commission 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
President Eli Capilouto has named a committee to determine next steps in commissioning art for Memorial Hall.
On March 24, the mural – painted by UK alum Ann Rice O’Hanlon – was officially unveiled. Story panels were placed in front of the mural to provide greater context. The next step in the process is to commission art that will be placed around the mural in the foyer of Memorial Hall to provide even greater historical context.
Members of the committee appointed by Capilouto include:
- Terry Allen, Co-chair
- Stuart Horodner, Co-chair
- Jay Blanton
- Anastasia Curwood
- Sonja Feist-Price
- Nicole Jenkins
- Allan Richards
- Mary Vosevich
- Quiyana M. Murphy
Student members will be added in the coming weeks. The committee met recently and is in the process of establishing a description to help publicly commission art as well as a timeline for choosing and installing new pieces in Memorial Hall. Capilouto has said he hopes the additional art will have a distinctly Kentucky voice.
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.
The Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) was established in December 1933 during the Great Depression. It was part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and marked the first time in history a federal government program supported art on a national level. It was created to lift the American spirit while providing artists with jobs and opportunities to serve their country. Ultimately, 3,749 artists were employed to create representational images of "America,” installed at public properties (non-federal buildings and parks) throughout the country.
New Deal artists embraced murals as an artistic medium for democratizing art, drawing inspiration from the Mexican muralist tradition, and seeking to articulate political situations and revolutionary impulses. These public works would engage American citizens where they lived and illustrate social, racial, and economic conditions.
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.
Questions of how institutions of higher learning create inclusive environments and reconcile institutional pasts with a changing understanding of history and accountability have been front and center at UK. We are part of this conversation both locally and nationally. The mural provides us with the opportunity to build thoughtful collaborations to ensure diversity and inclusiveness. Now is the time to tell a more complete story, one fully contextualized for the times in which we live and for the history that we study. We are in this world together, often torn apart by differences in race and perspective, identity and background; but held together, ultimately, by our common humanity and a commitment to doing what is just, what is right.
We encourage those who take classes, attend lectures, or visit Memorial Hall for other reasons to view the mural and form their own opinion about its artistic and historical merit.