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Lawsuit Is Latest Chapter In The Debate Over UK's Mural

University of Kentucky

Located inside the University of Kentucky’s Memorial Hall, A mural depicting life in Kentucky in the 1800’s has been the subject of intense discussion and debate for decades.  Like the painting, the discussion on what to do with the wall painting has a rich history.  There was yet another development in the “mural” story this week, a lawsuit filed seeking to keep the mural in its current location.

Ann Rice O’Hanlon, an Ashland native and UK graduate, painted the fresco in 1934 along the wall and between entry doors to the Memorial Hall auditorium.  She was commissioned as part of the Public Works of Art Project.  The mural scenery covers a wide range of settlement time activities including depictions of slaves bent over working in a crop field.

UK Senior Chandler Frierson had class in Memorial Hall and has been a part of the Black Student Advisory Council, seeking to have the mural removed.  When he saw the mural, Frierson said he was disgusted and embarrassed. “It almost made me feel ashamed to be there because the only representation of me on that wall was a slave and these are likely, with my family being from Kentucky, these are depictions of the life that they had to live,” said Frierson.

Well known Kentucky author Wendell Berry filed suit this week in an attempt to keep the fresco where it is - in Memorial Hall.  His wife Tanya Berry is the niece of the now deceased artist, O’Hanlon.  When asked to paint the scene Tanya Berry said her aunt sought information about the history of Kentucky.

Calling her “a very young liberal woman,” Berry says O’Hanlon told the family while producing the art, interest came from the African American community. “The only people who paid any attention to her work at all were several black people who would come in and would observe what she was doing.  They would bring her food at times and they were interested.  The Art Department people were not interested nor was anybody else on the campus,” noted Berry.

Berry says she was raised in California where O’Hanlon was her, quote, “guide into good music and good dance and artwork.”

Concerns about the depiction of slaves and Native Americans in the mural have been expressed for years.  More than once it’s been covered over by university officials.  In June UK President Eli Capilouto announced the mural would be removed entirely.  UK Spokesman Jay Blanton. “The mural has been a hurdle, one we’ve not been able to clear in terms of being able to move beyond it to have some of the conversations and dialogue and take some of the actions we need to take around diversity, equity, and inclusivity,” said Blanton.

Blanton added, quote, “There are good people on all sides of this issue who are well intentioned and have eloquent, articulate, and powerful arguments.”

Lending her voice and artist expression to this discussion is Philadelphia artist Karyn Olivier.  She created a separate painting “Witness” in 2018 on the ceiling of the vestibule in Memorial Hall.  Olivier said it extracted images from the wall mural to provide context and new meaning. “It was important to contest and be engaged with history.  I’m interested in how we deal with and confronting multiple histories and how do we kind of wrestle with that,” explained Olivier.

Olivier says the name “Witness” was given to her piece of art, which includes gold leaf, to be used as both a noun and a verb.  It includes a well-known quote from American social reformer, activist, and statesman Frederick Douglas-“There’s not a man beneath the canopy of heaven that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.”

Olivier says her work of art needs to be linked with the O’Hanlon mural to allow for conversation.

Tanya Berry fears any effort to move the large wall mural could prove to be destructive.“I would hate for it to be moved out of the place it was made for.  It was designed to be in the space of Memorial Hall and the chances of it being damaged by being moved are pretty high,” said Berry.

It could also prove to be an expensive endeavor to remove the mural from inside the Memorial Hall structure, which was built in 1929 as a memorial to those who died in World War I.

UK student Chandler Frierson, says the cost to move the Mural should not be a barrier. “Well, when it comes to slavery, the entire slavery industry financed the creation of the U.S. and has allowed it to be the super power that it is today, so I think that money should not be a question,” Frierson said.

Jay Blanton, with the university, says there is consideration being given to moving both the mural and the ceiling piece of art. “The O’Hanlon fresco is literally imbedded in a load bearing wall and then the other piece of art from Miss Olivier is in the ceiling in the vestibule of the entry was of Memorial Hall.  So, we’re going through a process right now with facilities and architectural experts of examining what is possible in terms of removing those pieces,” noted Blanton.

For her part, Olivier says she wouldn’t be totally against a move, but she says the two should be kept together.  Plus Olivier would like to see programming once a semester, where these pieces of art and others might be touchstones for discussion. “That could have been a model for many universities and institutions dealing with this.  Like how do we take Memorial Hall and talk about history, talk about memories, talk about the archives.  So, I would be up for it moving if it’s actually going to be used and not just hidden away.  Cause it’s a tool,” said Olivier.

Memorial Hall remains closed this summer.  Classes were not held in the steepled building this past spring either.  Jay Blanton said there’s no timeline for moving the mural, adding it must be done right.  And now with the lawsuit filed, that ensures the mural stays put- for now.

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