Memories are fading of illustrious faculty and alumni of Lexington’s all-black Dunbar High School, which closed 50 years ago as the Fayette County Public Schools were desegregated in 1967.
Soon, though, there will be colorful reminders of some of them on an outside wall of the old school building at 545 North Upper Street.
Lexington artist Christine Kuhn is working with local black history researcher Yvonne Giles and several student groups to create 15 mural panels honoring school greats. The panels will be placed over boarded-up side windows of the Dunbar Community Center.
The $18,500 project is being paid for with city funds and coordinated by LexArts. DecoArt, a Stanford manufacturer of acrylic paints, has donated the paint. The project was facilitated by First District Urban County Council member James Brown and launched by his predecessor, Chris Ford, now the city’s social services commissioner.
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Giles recommended people from the school to honor and helped find old photographs, which Kuhn manipulated with Photoshop software to make images to paint.
Kuhn combined the images with traditional “adinkra” symbols from West Africa that seemed appropriate for the person. For example, an image of the late Dunbar basketball coach Sanford T. Roach includes the circular adinkra symbol for leadership.
Other mural subjects include Paul Laurence Dunbar himself, the noted black poet, playwright and novelist. Dunbar was from Dayton, Ohio, but Giles says he made several visits to Lexington, where his uncle, John Burton, and an aunt, Anna Scott, lived. On one visit, he presented some of his work. When Dunbar died at age 33 in 1906, black Lexington sculptor Isaac Scott Hathaway took his death mask and created a sculpture.
Others featured on the panels include Dunbar’s principals — William Henry Fouse (1923-1938), P. L. Guthrie (1938-1966) and Clara Wendell Stitt, (1966-1967) — and two revered music teachers: choir director Joanna Offutt and band director Charles Quillings. Also featured is teacher and coach Harry Sykes, Lexington’s first black city commissioner, mayor pro-tem, vice mayor and city administrator. Earlier this month, a street was named in Sykes’his memory.
Among notable alumni on the panels will be Maurice Strider, a noted photographer, artist and educator; and John T. Smith, a University of Kentucky administrator who was the first black student to earn a doctorate at UK.
“I wanted to show the dignity of the people represented,” Kuhn said when asked her artistic vision for the project. “People who are from minority groups don’t always get the dignity they deserve. The community has always been filled with amazing people who are just doing their jobs.”
Over the past few years, Kuhn has compiled an impressive body of work emphasizing emotions, social justice and community experiences. She has created several murals and panels around Lexington, and others as far away as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She likes teaching and working with non-artists to create public art.
Kuhn grew up in Adair County and earned a chemistry and biology degree from Berea College, intending to become a research scientist. She also earned a master’s degree in diplomacy from UK’s Patterson School, gained fluency in French and German, and did work toward a doctorate in biochemistry before realizing her calling was as a professional artist. She has since studied art at several programs, including the Philadelphia Mural Arts Training Program.
“I’m the lead artist” on this project, Kuhn said, but she has gotten help completing the panels from students in LexArts’ Youth Arts Council, the Fayette County Public Schools’ Family Resource Center and UK’s arts education program.
“Painting is not like coloring; it’s always about layering,” Kuhn said. “The kids are doing a great job, and some of them have come a long way.”
Students’ work on the panels began in August with a “community paint” event at Cheapside Park’s Fifth Third Pavilion. Kuhn said she hopes to have the project completed and hung on the side of the Dunbar Center facing Fifth Street by the end of March.
Sonja Brooks’ nonprofit Sisohpromatem Art Foundation helped coordinate student involvement in the project. “I think it’s valuable when young people know how art connects with the community,” Brooks said. “This is getting them better connected with their community and allowing them to learn something about its history.”