Art class adds massive agricultural mural to Alabama museum

OPELIKA, Ala. Thanks to Auburn art students, Opelika’s Museum of East Alabama now bears a second mural recognizing the region’s rich agricultural history and contributions. A class of 13 students and three hired artists painted the mural as part of a semester-long project under the direction of Wendy DesChene, an […]

Thanks to Auburn art students, Opelika’s Museum of East Alabama now bears a second mural recognizing the region’s rich agricultural history and contributions.

A class of 13 students and three hired artists painted the mural as part of a semester-long project under the direction of Wendy DesChene, an Auburn University art professor. The class began the mural in January and recently completed the artwork.

Elements of the mural include Booker T. Whatley and George Washington Carver, agriculture professors at the Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University. Whatley was known for developing techniques like drip irrigation, while Carver became internationally recognized for his promotion of peanut butter.

“That’s why there’s peanuts (in the mural),” DesChene said with a laugh. “Everything’s up there for a reason, except for maybe the cow … and the chicken; they kind of represent all cute farm animals.”

She described the artwork as the largest outdoor mural she’s ever worked on, with the class piecing it together like a puzzle after painting it in sections on 16 different panels of a material DesChene called “mural cloth.”

“Sometimes the panel was here and then the panel that would go right beside it would be in another room,” DesChene said. “We’d use things like Instagram layout to try and make sure they all lined up.”

Myra Stephenson, a 2021 Auburn University art graduate with a concentration in painting, was among the contributing artists who worked with the class.

“It’s been really fun working with other people and seeing them grow as artists,” Stephenson said. “A lot of these people have never even painted before … so seeing them paint for the first time and being able to make things with their hands is fun to watch.”

She said her favorite elements of the mural are a dress she painted on one side of the canvas as well as a peacock outline in a vintage “peafowl” advertisement.

“It’s fun to think that something you’ve touched or worked on is going to be there for who knows how long and how many people are going to see it,” Stephenson said.

Auburn’s Caroline Marshall Draughon Center for the Arts & Humanities led funding for the artistic effort, budgeting the project at a total $20,000 for the 35-foot long, 14-foot tall mural on the condition it would be completed in one semester.

“Our center has been honored to support this project with Professor DesChene and her students,” said Mark Wilson, director of the Caroline Marshall Draughon Center. “For them to be able to pull this off especially within a semester is pretty noteworthy, I think.”

Glenn Buxton, director and curator of the Museum of East Alabama, said the mural was a long time coming. Originally, the art was to occupy the wall on Avenue A, painted by an Auburn art class led by visiting New York artist Esteban del Valle.

“They had come in and did the finishing of the wall, put the grid up, already had the paints here and had their power lifts up there to do the painting,” Buxton said. “And when they got ready to start, COVID hit and the university shut everything down.”

The museum since had artist Chris Johnson Columbus, Georgia, paint a mural on the wall paying tribute to other local historical figures and industry, which he completed in March on the other side of the museum. But, the opportunity reappeared in fall 2021 for Auburn students to contribute when Buxton was informed the university still had the money to finance a mural for the museum. In turn, he informed the university that a small pavilion had been constructed for Old Nancy, a 1904 Case steam traction engine the museum received as a donation recently.

“I said it’d be ideal to make that into an agricultural exhibit and it would be nice to have a mural on that wall,” Buxton said. “Wendy came with her class, and I took them through the museum and told them things I envisioned (being in the mural), but it was up to them to design how it looked.”

DesChene said the final design was meant to pair with the colors of Old Nancy, which arrived not long after the class began painting.

“Our color scheme is based on making Old Nancy look the best it can, so there’s a lot of black, there’s accents of red and there’s green,” DesChene said. “Old Nancy was used as a generator for a sawmill for a long time … and of course, lumber is also very important to this area as well. So everything in the mural has some kind of connection to (East Alabama).”

The mural may have been a vehicle for students to improve their painting abilities with public art, but those involved in the project say its aim was also about forging interaction between Auburn students and their community.

“We always want to have as many projects (as possible) where students and community members can benefit from each other,” Wilson said. “There’s no better way to do that than to give students a real-world opportunity to make sure that they get their own vision for what public art and community art can be.”

Stephenson said the project was a great way for her and current students to donate to the museum while learning about history in the process.

“It’s fun to think that something you’ve touched or worked on is going to be there for who knows how long and (who) knows how many people are going to see it,” she said. “It was really cool to see it all together because you really don’t think about how agricultural everything is while you’re here because Auburn’s (become) so business-like with apartments.”

The City of Opelika is set to commemorate the mural in a ceremony on May 12 at the Museum of East Alabama, with the public invited to attend and enjoy free food and beverages. The ceremony will also recognize Johnson’s mural on the Avenue A side of the museum.


https://www.miamiherald.com/entertainment/celebrities/article261219752.html

Dong Anker

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