Nikky Finney had a near-daily ritual when she lived in Lexington.
“I’m a walker, I’m a hiker,” Finney says from her home in South Carolina. “I could easily cover four or five miles in a walk.”
On one walk, she was stopped cold by Kentucky Historical Marker No. 2122 at the Cheapside slave auction block next to the old courthouse building.
“African Americans were sold as slaves at Cheapside Auction Block on the public square in the 19th century,” reads the marker, which was removed after it was vandalized in 2015 and reinstalled in March of this year. “Thousands of slaves were sold at Cheapside, including children who were separated from their parents.”
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The other side of the marker more broadly details slavery in Fayette County, noting a whipping post on the courthouse lawn and that, “By 1860, one in four residents of the city of Lexington were slaves.”
“I stood there and wondered, had anybody else read this,” Finney, a National Book Award-winning poet, recalls. “After that, I would walk to that marker every time, kiss my hand, and put my fingers up to the marker.”
Now, five years since moving from Lexington to her native South Carolina, Finney is part of an art project with two Lexington artists to shine a brighter light on the horrors that took place at Cheapside.
For artist Marjorie Guyon, who is white, the project started with successive meetings with Ashley Grigsby, chair of the board of The Nest, who is black, and their shared concern with about rising racial divisions in the country as evidenced by events such as the deadly white nationalist riot in Charlottesville, Va., in the summer of 2017.
Cheapside and the courthouse square were the site of a bitter dispute over statues of Confederate figures John Hunt Morgan and John C. Breckinridge that were removed in 2017 and placed in the Lexington Cemetery in July.
“One day she was standing by this window, and I was looking over her shoulder,” Guyon says in her studio, which overlooks Cheapside and the courthouse. “I said, ‘I always had this idea that a mother and child would appear and disappear in the windows and doorways surrounding Cheapside, because the spirits are still there.’ She said, ‘That is the story of the African-American woman: no one ever sees us, and everyone’s afraid of our men.’
“I said, ‘I think we can do something with this.’”
She ended up asking Grigsby to come up with her young son for a photo session, and then Guyon played with those images to create a look that she thought started to tell the story. But she says she is not that good with photo equipment, so she enlisted the help of another Lexington artist: photographer Patrick J. Mitchell.
“He said, ‘You don’t have to sell me on it. I’m in,’” Guyon says.
Guyon also knew about her old friend Nikky’s historical marker, and she quickly came on board after their first conversation about the project, saying she did not think the images should just be women and children, but men also.
The artists set about casting their photo shoot with people who projected, “strength, character, not broken, not down, family,” Mitchell says. “I was looking for presence.”
That’s because the images, which the artists call “ancestral spirit portraits,” are located around the Cheapside block, gazing out from establishments including restaurants, bars and law offices, most enhanced with phrases and passages of poetry from Finney.
“When I look at Patrick and Marjorie’s 21 pieces of art, I’m flabbergasted by the beauty,” Finney says. “You want something to connect with in a beautiful way. These people had beauty about them.
“But the horror of what happened has to be reported. I want it to be difficult to read — how did we do this to someone? That was a horror story.”
The centerpiece of Finney’s contribution to the project is her poem, “Auction Block of Negro Weather.” Late last week, the irony of her choice to use the imagery of a hurricane to describe the mothers and fathers and children and families being ripped apart and flung across the country was not lost on Finney as Hurricane Florence bore down on her South Carolina home.
Finney credits Lexington historian Yvonne Giles use of the word “cataclysmic” in her description of what happened to people who were sold at Cheapside with inspiring the hurricane metaphor. But she didn’t just see its relevance in the storm imagery.
“The storm goes away,” Finney says. “The devastation does not go away.”
And, she adds, “it can happen again.”
With this exhibit, the artists say they want to prompt the community to take care of unfinished business.
“We are in a moment that’s so divisive, and there’s so much name calling and separation,” Finney says. “We felt it was now or never if we were going to bring together different segments of our society and say what we understand about each other and what we still need to work on.”
Some of that will happen this weekend at the Carnegie Center, where a formal exhibit of the images will open as part of Friday night’s Gallery Hop, followed by a community conversation Saturday, including a poetry reading, artists talk and discussion at the center. But where they believe the work can really have impact is out around Cheapside, where the ghostly images will be seen by people who would never darken the door of a gallery or museum.
“How better to engage the public than to engage the public?” Guyon says.
Finney describes “I Was Here” as “the most egalitarian project I have ever been involved in,” noting that the images are “signed” with thumbprints, instead of signatures. And the images refer to the slave trade beyond Lexington, referring to markets in places such as Savannah, Ga., and The Middle Passage, part of the Atlantic slave trade route.
There are plans for the images to reach beyond Lexington, taking the project to Ohio, Nashville and even New York.
“That’s really the goal of the project, to have these luminous angel portraits shining out from every city, showing us another path,” Guyon says.
“I don’t know that we can fix what’s going on in the world,” Mitchell says. “But the road map to that healing is going to be through this project.”
IF YOU GO
‘I Was Here’
What: Exhibit of ancestor spirit portraits by Marjorie Guyon and Patrick J. Mitchell with poetry by Nikky Finney.
Where: Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, 251 W. Second St.
Gallery Hop: The exhibit opening will be part of September Gallery Hop, in which more than 50 galleries and exhibit spaces are open in Lexington from 5 to 8 p.m. Sept. 21. See galleryhoplex.com for more information.
Community conversation: Artists talk with poetry and discussion 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sept. 22.
Cheapside: In addition to framed images at the Carnegie Center, the exhibit’s images will be displayed in the windows of businesses around the Cheapside area.