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Prominent UK Mural Going Off Display

Josh James

A Depression-era mural displayed in the atrium of the University of Kentucky’s Memorial Hall atrium will soon be covered up from public view.

When UK junior Kaelin Massey first paused to take a serious look at the massive Ann Rice O’Hanlon painting at the hall entrance, a common first stop for prospective students, she says the image of slaves toiling in the fields made her reconsider her choice of school.

"This was the fall semester of my freshmen year, so early... I was like, 'Wow.' I didn't know if I wanted to continue going to school here," she remembers thinking.

Massey was one of about two dozen African-American students who sat down with UK President Eli Capilouto two weeks ago to launch a dialogue about race relations on campus – a three-hour meeting where the university head said many of the concerns heard at schools across the country were echoed.

"This gave an opportunity for people to voice what I would say are experiences that have been accumulating and simmering," Capilouto tells WUKY.

Although the mural played a relatively minor role in the discussion, administration officials are moving to address the controversy by cloaking the artwork for the time being while the president consults with students, art and history professors, and others on how to remedy what university spokesman Jay Blanton called “a question of context."

"I think in [Capilouto's] view of it, he sees a piece of 1930s art that is an important historical perspective, but it's an incomplete perspective," Blanton says. "It doesn't speak to 2015."

For Massey, the mural serves as a "constant reminder of what Kentucky was before everyone was included." And while  she appreciates the university’s decision, she's quick to add that her ultimate focus is on graduation rates, retention, and an equal distribution of resources on campus.

"Honestly, for me personally, the mural is the least of my worries. What I care about, what I'm more passionate about is everybody having the same opportunity," she says.

For now, the university plans to post a message explaining why the 1934 fresco has been blocked from view until a final decision is made on how to proceed.

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.