“It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see. --Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau’s lesson to us is about perspective. In a sense, too, it is about empathy – the ability and the desire to walk a mile in another’s shoes, to see through someone else’s eyes, to experience what they experience.
Over the last several months, members of our campus community – from the student body, faculty and staff, and the broader Lexington community – have been discussing the historic mural housed in the foyer of Memorial Hall.
The strong sentiment of the committee, after months of thoughtful discourse, has been to preserve this significant work of art for those on our campus today and for those who will follow tomorrow.
The deeper discussion, really, has been about what we see and how each member of our community experiences that work of art. Painted in the 1930s by University of Kentucky alum and accomplished artist, Ann Rice O’Hanlon, the fresco is considered by some to be one of the most important works of art in the Commonwealth.
It was designed to be the centerpiece of a building that was – and is – an iconic structure on our campus. Memorial Hall was built for the entire university community to gather. And it was erected to memorialize and honor those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our country in World War I. Some 3,500 names – representing each county in our Commonwealth – hang on the walls of the foyer on each side of the mural.
The hall was designed to represent freedom.
But what does it mean to represent freedom today?
Ms. O’Hanlon – in a beautiful and compelling way -- told a story through a talented artist’s eyes within the context of her time.
Now, as the committee recommended, it is time to tell the story more completely and through the eyes of many experiences – preserving the art as part of our history, but adding to it to tell a more complete and sensitively rendered story of our human experience.
Some, for example, see a work of art that seeks to track the progression of our state. Still others, viewing the art in today’s context, see a misshapen view – a distortion – of the experience that people of color have had in Kentucky.
We know that is time to provide a more contextualized view.
It is time to complete the story.
In recent weeks, the committee provided me a number of recommendations about how to rectify that lack of context, while creating a foundation for dialogue and action that will help us make sustained progress as we strive to be what Dr. King called the “beloved community.”
Several steps will be taken this academic year that include:
- Unveiling the mural again, but surrounding it with other works of art from a variety of perspectives that provide a larger narrative of our history, our aspirations, our shortcomings and the progress we still must make. You can see a conversation about the mural that recent UK graduate Nigel Taylor and I had: https://youtu.be/pETpyH_t8Tw
- Digital boards that will also tell the history of the mural and of the artist, who gave it life along with other aspects of our institution’s history.
- A commitment to programming in Memorial Hall through discussions, classes and events that focus on issues of race and identity from many perspectives. For instance, syllabi from classes and programs from events held in Memorial Hall will contain a description of the piece and surrounding art as part of the effort to continue to tell a powerful story in a more complete and nuanced context.
- A broader discussion – and decision process -- about art in public spaces throughout our campus. A committee already exists on our campus that discusses public art. I will be tasking them with thinking through a more formal process for how public art is displayed on our campus to ensure that it tells as broad and sensitive a story as possible, wherever it is displayed.
- Later this month, for example, we will dedicate a statue near Commonwealth Stadium that memorializes four men who broke the color barrier, not only on the UK football team but for an entire conference. It is another step we take, as art reminds of where we have been, but also what we aspire to be. We need such reminders throughout our campus.
- As we think about art erected in other places – from the new Student Center to campus buildings under construction – we will place an emphasis on the story we tell and the context in which we tell it.
At the same time, there is a fresh energy and sense of urgency to our efforts. I see all around me a desire for UK to be a truly welcoming and inclusive community for everyone who calls this place home.
Last semester, I met for more than three hours with 25 students of color at Maxwell Place. We discussed the mural and the feelings it evoked. But even more dialogue centered on issues of concern with efforts on our campus to create that community we all want. Further conversations and forums last spring created still more focal points for progress.
Working together, we have established five key areas – building blocks for a strong foundation and future. You can read more about those building blocks – our progress to date and what we must continue to build – at this website: http://www.uky.edu/diversity/mural.
We have made much progress, to be sure. But there is much work still to do. The commitment is there. Our community is more willing than ever to make progress.
It begins with a willingness to see. I’m proud to be part of a community committed to open eyes and broad perspectives.