Russellville school district to review controversial artwork

This image in Russellville High School shows black men working in a field.
This image in Russellville High School shows black men working in a field. Photo provided

A Western Kentucky school district is reviewing artwork in its high school amid concerns from the community and a report by the Herald-Leader.

The initial report focused on a mural at Russellville Independent School District’s Stevenson Elementary School which features two black children tending to a garden while a white man plays a violin. The mural, created in 1999 by Tennessee artist Bob Gray and students, sparked discussion on Facebook and in the Logan County community about the artwork’s racial implications.

Gray and school district administrators say the mural is devoid of racial stereotypes.

Discussions about the mural inspired Russellville High School graduate TC Thomason, 30, to organize a coalition of people hoping to replace the mural. Thomason works at Cincinnati Works, a nonprofit that helps the poor, and he is also an artist.

“People have been talking about that mural for a while,” Thomason said. “The mural was put up when I was in middle school. ... Art should communicate something without the research. The image at Stevenson is an obviously racist image. I’m not trying to say the artist is racist; that’s what the image communicates.”

Russellville Superintendent Leon Smith has asked the district’s site-based decision-making council to review all the art in its high school after two other pieces of art were shared with the Herald-Leader. One image appears to show black men in prison jumpsuits working in a field, while the other artwork features black women playing dominoes by candlelight.

“We have a 40 percent minority (population). We celebrate diversity,” Smith said of the two other pieces of art. “A lot of students celebrate with art. We have a big picture of Barack Obama above an entryway. We consider it a celebration of our diversity. A lot of our students have input in the art.”

The artwork of the men in jumpsuits was not in the high school when Thomason was there. He said he believes the artwork needs more context.

“I’m at a loss,” Thomason said. “What are you trying to communicate there? What I see is black prisoners. And I think there’s a lot better images to be supplied to kids in school.”

The decision-making council is made up of three elected teachers, two parents and a principal. It is like a “mini board for the school in charge of curriculum, scheduling, room assignments,” Smith said.

Russellville High School principal Kim McDaniel, who has been with the district more than a decade, is on the council.

“To the best of my knowledge, the majority of the artwork and murals within the building were created by a former art teacher, Brenda Brown, and numerous students throughout the years,” McDaniel said. “We have a wide variety of images, from historical works to reproductions of famous artists, displayed in our school.”

Thomason said that growing up in Western Kentucky, and Kentucky in general, he remembers how his community was “self-segregated” and is nostalgic for the Antebellum South era. He is confident that the coalition he’s organizing can raise money to change the mural at Stevenson Elementary and inspire more discussions about this sort of imagery in Russellville.

“When there’s a monument to the Confederate president less than 10 miles away from where you grow up, that’s normalized,” Thomason said. “History influences how people exist in the present.”

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