Kentucky school mural’s portrayal of black children causes concern

Elementary school mural causes concern

The mural on Stevenson Elementary in Russellville was completed in 1999, but its portrayal of black children working has recently provoked criticism.
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The mural on Stevenson Elementary in Russellville was completed in 1999, but its portrayal of black children working has recently provoked criticism.

A mural at a Western Kentucky elementary school depicting two black children tending a garden while a tall white man plays a violin has upset some residents.

A photo of the mural at Stevenson Elementary School in Russellville was first posted on Reddit’s r/pics community April 29 before winding up on Facebook.

Jason Nobbin shared the 18-year-old mural on Facebook to mostly negative reactions. Nobbin, 40, lives in Russellville and has two children at Stevenson Elementary, ages 4 and 7. Nobbin also went to Stevenson Elementary and graduated from the school in 1986.

“I’m lost for words,” Nobbin said. “Anything but manual rural labor for the kids to see. Something that represents success: doctor, lawyers, sports or anything. If that’s the image they had at that time, someone was doing something wrong. Why would you paint something like that?”


The mural was completed in 1999 by East Tennessee artist Bob Gray, with the help of students.

Stevenson Elementary is in the Russellville Independent School District, which has about 1,100 total students, 40 percent of which are minorities, superintendent Leon Smith said.

Gray was asked to paint the mural as part of a grant the school had received, said Brenda Brown, a former art teacher at the school.

The mural was inspired by a children’s story that Gray was working on at the time. Gray remembered the children in the mural, and the garden they are in, being painted by the elementary students.

“It was a neat couple days, very creative,” Gray said. “All the kids got to be involved in the art. There were a lot of artistic elements involved in the two days. They were painting and repeating what they see around them every day. The kids were so excited about their work and being able to be an artist for a day, that several insisted that their creations would not be complete until they had signed their work.”

In eight years as superintendent, Smith has never heard a complaint regarding the mural. Neither had school principal Robin Cornelius, who took the position in mid-April, and longtime librarian Sheri Bouldin.

“I’m not sure what to say. I’m always appreciative of art,” Smith said. “It was here before I was here.”

It is not unheard of for controversial murals in Kentucky to draw fresh criticism as the University of Kentucky recently learned.

In 1934, artist Ann Rice O’Hanlon created a mural for UK as part of the Public Works of Art Project. The mural depicted black workers planting tobacco and black musicians playing for white dancers.

In November 2015, President Eli Capilouto defied his predecessor, Lee T. Todd Jr., and had the mural covered after a group of black students told him it was demeaning. The mural was uncovered again in March only after a sign explaining its historical significance was added to it.

Fernando Alfonso III: 859-231-1324, @fernalfonso