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bell hooks mural dedicated in downtown Hopkinsville

Hoptown Chronicle
Jennifer P. Brown
Gwenda Motley hugs a young family member, Averi Williams, during a dedication on Saturday, Aug. 27, for the bell hooks mural honoring Motley’s sister, Gloria Jean Watkins, the feminist author who grew up in Hopkinsville.

The painting by Hopkinsville artist Paula Gieseke honors the legacy of Gloria Jean Watkins, the feminist author known by her pen name bell hooks.

In the days following feminist author bell hooks’ death on Dec. 15, 2021, at her home in Berea, news outlets across the United States and overseas carried reports of her passing. Every one of those stories noted that bell hooks was born Gloria Jean Watkins in Hopkinsville, Ky.

The emphasis on the town where Watkins was raised — and educated in segregated and later integrated schools — carried great meaning for her sister, Gwenda Motley, who retired several years ago from teaching in Michigan and moved back to make Hopkinsville her home again.

Hoptown Chronicle
Jennifer P. Brown
Artist Paula Gieseke, who painted the bell hooks mural on the exterior of the Christian County Historical Society, speaks during the dedication for the mural on Saturday, Aug. 27.

As she began to make plans for her sister’s memorial service, Motley focused on the hometown legacy. She wanted to make sure the significance of Hopkinsville to bell hooks’ writing was not forgotten.

Her mission to secure the memory of bell hooks in Hopkinsville continued this weekend with the dedication of a mural on the west exterior wall of the Christian County Historical Society at Ninth and Liberty streets.

Speaking to several dozen attendees, Motley recalled going to Holly Boggess, who directs the Downtown Renaissance program, back in February to ask if Hopkinsville might replicate a mural of bell hooks in Berea. Boggess promised to get right on it.

“And right on it, she did,” said Motley.

During the bell hooks Celebration of Life on April 2 at the Alhambra Theatre, Boggess announced that the mural would be painted by summer. Paula Gieseke, an art teacher at Christian County High School who is responsible for several public projects in Hopkinsville, was commissioned to paint the mural.

Gieseke was among the speakers at the Saturday morning dedication. Also speaking were Alissa Keller, executive director of the Museums of Historic Hopkinsville-Christian County, Mayor Wendell Lynch, and Yvette Eastham, chief institutional advancement officer at Hopkinsville Community College.

The college is planning to install a piece of art honoring bell hooks at the Round Table Literary Park on Sept. 25, the 70th anniversary of Watkins’ birth. And Keller announced that plans are being made for an annual event, such as a symposium, to explore the writer’s works and influence. The first event, on Sept. 24, will be exclusively for women.

Hoptown Chronicle
Jennifer P. Brown
Mayor Wendell Lynch speaks during the bell hooks mural dedication on Saturday, Aug. 27, in downtown Hopkinsville. Lynch attended the same schools and church with Gloria Jean Watkins, the Hopkinsville native known by her pen name, bell hooks.

The new mural’s downtown location has meaning. It is visible from the front steps of the Pennyroyal Area Museum, which was Hopkinsville’s post office during Watkins’ youth, and now has bell hooks artifacts on loan from the family. Lines from her poems have been installed throughout the museum’s permanent exhibit.

“I was astounded at how many of her poems speak directly to the history, to the people, to the cultural landscape of this place. It’s like getting a personal literary tour of the museum from bell hooks,” said Keller.
Another landscape visible from the mural is the old Carnegie Library at Eight and Liberty streets. As a child, Watkins often walked from her home to the library and back carrying stacks of books. The library fed her voracious appetite for reading.

The mural shares a long brick wall with another mural, dedicated earlier this year to Christian County’s agricultural heritage. Motley thanked the owners of the Christian County Historical Society building — retired businessman Ben Wood and county historian William T. Turner — for agreeing to also have the bell hooks mural there.

This story was originally published by the Hoptown Chronicle.

Jennifer P. Brown is the founder and editor of Hoptown Chronicle.
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