Merlene Davis: Comments sought on proposals for signature piece at Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden

Stacey Farley of Garrison, N.Y., would transfer an image of Murphy onto a giant tile that would be the backdrop for a three-sided shelter containing a bench and historic details about Murphy. "You can see it from far away but, when you get closer, you will learn more information," she said.
Stacey Farley of Garrison, N.Y., would transfer an image of Murphy onto a giant tile that would be the backdrop for a three-sided shelter containing a bench and historic details about Murphy. "You can see it from far away but, when you get closer, you will learn more information," she said. Herald-Leader

To the casual observer, the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden seems to be a plot of land at Third Street and Midland Avenue noted only by an occasional fleet of brightly colored flags or a lighted Christmas tree.

But there is movement afoot.

Beginning Feb. 10, all of us will get to help decide which signature piece of art will define that space. Artists from Lexington, Ohio, California and New York have submitted scaled models of pieces they hope will be chosen as the magnet to draw visitors to the area to explore Murphy's life and those of other black jockeys who aren't prominent in history books.

Those five works will be on display at Land of Tomorrow Gallery for two weeks to allow us to view and comment on them. Community comments will be taken into consideration when the selection is made.

David Cozart, president of the memorial park board, said the group wanted something different, something personal, at the park.

"We know we want to be unique and not like any other place," he said. "But we won't risk integrity."

The nine-member board joined with LexArts to solicit pieces from artists nationwide. The park, which has been stalled for several years, is intended to be an entryway to the East End, a historic black neighborhood, and to honor Murphy, who rode the winner in three Kentucky Derbys.

The call for art went out in October, and the works came in last week.

The five proposals "are all really different," said Steve Austin, vice president of the Bluegrass Community Foundation. "Each tells a story of the Thoroughbred industry."

A part of the Legacy Trail project, which is overseen by the Bluegrass Community Foundation and stretches from the Kentucky Horse Park to Third Street and Midland Avenue, the park now has enough money for construction and to seed the art pieces, Cozart said.

"We are really beginning to put this all together," Austin said.

The artists who submitted proposals — Garry R. Bibbs of Lexington; Neal and Tiffany Bociek of San Diego; Willis "Bing" Davis of Dayton, Ohio; Stacey Farley of Garrison, N.Y.; and LaVon Williams of Lexington — visited the site of the park and learned about the East End community, the Legacy Trail and Lexington before creating their pieces.

■ Bibbs, an associate art professor at the University of Kentucky, said he was inspired by the juxtaposition of Murphy and the era in which he lived.

"This man is winning his first race after Reconstruction, 40 years after the Civil War," Bibbs said. "I wanted to take into consideration the impact of a winning jockey maneuvering through the major racial issues of the times.

"He is racing two races all the time," he said, "and also has two victories at the same time."

The sculpture, A Race to the Finish, is displayed along a curved wall and uses three metals. "I want to make good art, but I want it to contain the truth," Bibbs said.

■ The husband-and-wife team of Neal and Tiffany Bociek are using Murphy's image in their work, My Home Is a Horse and a Track.

"Because there is an interest in knowing who and what Isaac Murphy was, I didn't want to do something abstract," Neal Bociek said. "You will know who he is immediately."

Their proposed piece features a silhouetted image of Murphy racing on a horse that intersects with another, to contrast Murphy's gentleness with the power of a race horse. Rising above the horses is a circular disc bearing Murphy's image that can spin 360 degrees.

The piece is meant to show Murphy looking over his property and the nearby community that once included the Kentucky Association Racetrack, Neal Bociek said.

"It is not just about the art, but it is really about the community," Tiffany Bociek said. "We were inspired by a whole lot of YouTube videos about the Legacy Trail. We were really inspired by that energy those videos gave off. We kind of felt like it was a great place to be."

■ William "Bing" Davis got that same vibe when he walked the land and visited African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street and the Kentucky Horse Park.

"I became familiar with Lexington and watched some of the dig at the park and put my hands in the dirt," Davis said. "It just filled me up and totally changed my idea from what I had envisioned."

Davis submitted a sleek sculpture in which rider and horse appear to be one. The piece will be made of a composite material that is light, he said, but as strong as steel. Portions of two bridges in Dayton are made of the composite.

The finished piece, covered with three to five coats of a synthetic fiberglass and painted with ultraviolet auto-body paint, would be 5 feet by 3 feet and sit atop a pedestal.

Davis named the piece, which he describes as an abstract of a horse and rider working as a unit to become winners, Jah Aswon, which stands for "jockey and horse as won."

■ Stacey Farley's works are installed at train stations, museums, gardens and parks in the form of ceramic tiles. She has been working with tiles for 25 years.

Farley's proposal includes transferring an image of Murphy onto a giant tile that will be the backdrop for a three-sided shelter containing a bench.

"You can see it from far away but, when you get closer, you will learn more information," she said. "You can see him in the context of U.S. history."

On one short wall, there will be a time line that features Murphy's Derby wins, constitutional amendments and the Civil War, she said. On the other short wall there will be a poem by Frank X Walker.

"I am interested in people who are anonymous or who got lost along the way," Farley said. "Here is a very important person who disappeared from the history books. It is right up my alley to tell that story. I was drawn to it."

Whether she wins or not, Farley said, she enjoyed doing the research. "It was a great ride."

■ Noted woodcarver and former UK basketball player LaVon Williams first heard of Murphy from his father, a schoolteacher who taught young people about little known men and women in black history, he said.

"Murphy was my father's hero," said Williams, who grew up in Florida.

Although his principle medium is wood, Williams said he would sculpt the Murphy piece in metal so it would withstand the elements.

The three pieces he created are meant to cover the back and sides of a bench that would be in the park.

One side, Lucy, would acknowledge Murphy's love for his wife, Lucy, to whom he would give a rose or flower every day. Another, Race Man, is a tribute to Murphy as a jockey with innate skills, winning without using a whip. And the last, American Style, depicts his original riding style, which was straighter, and how Murphy learned other styles, using whichever best suited his mount.

"It is a piece that welcomes everybody," said Williams, a member of the 1978 UK team that won a national championship. "Murphy brought people together. He was gracious and kind."

Construction of the park should start in early spring and include a range of art created by children, said Austin. Construction of the signature piece will begin when the artist is available.

Also on display with the proposed works will be artifacts uncovered during a recent archeological dig and historic markers about Murphy and the East End that will be placed in the park.

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