It is a truism that every picture tells a story. Perhaps, it is true as well that every picture must necessarily raise questions:
What was the intent of the artist? What is the interplay between intent and the perceptions of divergent and diverse audiences over time and across chasms of race, identity, gender and ideology?
Can a static image — frozen in time by the medium in which it is displayed — change in its meaning? What is the responsibility of those who display art in a public setting to provide context as we understand that how a picture is perceived today will change and evolve tomorrow?
“All images, regardless of the date of their creation, exist simultaneously and are pressed into service to help us make sense of other images,” Teju Cole, a reporter and critic, wrote recently in The New York Times in an essay about the controversial and haunting photograph, “The Cotton Pickers.” “This suggests a possible approach to photography criticism: a river of interconnected images wordlessly but fluently commenting on one another.”
Such interconnection — the idea of fluent imagery contrasted by perceptions of seemingly irreconcilable images — is the foundational goal of this week’s unveiling of the mural that frames the entrance to the auditorium in Memorial Hall at the University of Kentucky.
The mural has stirred support and controversy for years on our campus and elsewhere.
The same kinds of conversations have emerged on college campuses throughout our country. The debate rages over names affixed to buildings or monuments honoring those who were, depending on the perspective, people of their times or leaders whose checkered past on issues of slavery, race and respect for all of humanity now renders their images incapable of imparting the bedrock values of freedom and broad inquiry that are supposed to undergird American universities.
The idea behind the UK mural — as conceived by the federal government as a Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) and the artist, Kentuckian and UK alum Ann Rice O’Hanlon — was to lift the spirits of people depressed by years of economic depression in the 1930s. 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, she adopted a straightforward, realistic style that fulfilled the requirements of the public works 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.
O’Hanlon’s considerable artistic skill was to serve the purpose of capturing Kentucky’s evolution and progress from agrarian frontier outpost to thriving industrial state. In many ways, the mural creatively accomplishes that goal.
Images of progress in the arts, medicine, education, engineering and science are depicted. Over the years, however, many have taken issue with 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 Cole suggests in his 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, as is so often the case, we’ve been led by students.
On a fall evening in 2015, 24 African-American students gathered at Maxwell Place for a three-hour discussion around issues of common cause and concern. The most important issues revolved around diverse programming and opportunities for students, faculty and staff, and creating a community where everyone could feel a sense of belonging.
One part of what it means to be a welcoming, inclusive community centered on the mural. In response, we temporarily covered 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.
That group coalesced around the idea that the mural should be unveiled again, but placed in greater context to tell a more enduring story of our campus, who we are, and who we want to be.
A public art committee is working now to commission pieces with what we hope is a distinctly Kentucky voice to frame the mural in the foyer. And as we complete renovations to Memorial Hall, we also are working with a conservator to initiate a restoration of the mural.
Panels — in the form of permanent signage — stand in front of the mural, telling the story of its creation, the artist’s intent and the response from the community over time.
A version of that narrative will be provided to groups who use Memorial Hall for events, starting this fall. And we are working with faculty leaders to provide similar information to instructors who teach classes there. Finally, a website has been created that will serve as host for updated information about our progress with the mural and efforts to tell a more complete story.
Like all conversations, our steps here are a beginning, not an end. They are not perfect, nor are they final or complete. They will stimulate more conversation; raise more questions; foster more debate.
After all, as Cole wrote in his Times essay, “the dazzle of art and the bitterness of life are yoked to each other. There is no escape.”
We will seek answers, not escape, knowing that our search and our journey will never be complete. Our work will be informed by our humanity — at once colored by strength and frailty, guided by dueling strokes of compassion and imperfection on a canvas we create together.
That, too, is art's inescapable conclusion as well as its ethereal and haunting purpose.