24 November 2011
Ann Rice O’Hanlon’s Fresco
A piece of art oftentimes goes unappreciated or even unnoticed and this can be said about Ann O’Hanlon’s fresco featured in Memorial Hall on University of Kentucky’s campus. Ann O’Hanlon was commissioned in 1934 to create this magnificent piece of art that has maintained its beauty and uniqueness these past 77 years. It has lasted all these years due to the brilliant techniques of the European type fresco. What people do not know is who Ann O’Hanlon is, why her fresco was created, and what is its significance to the University and state of Kentucky.
Ann Rice O’Hanlon was born on June 21, 1908 in Ashland, Kentucky. She graduated as an art major from the University of Kentucky. Her undergraduate years were the source of her basic training. In an interview in 1984, she spoke highly of the instructors she had at UK. She attended the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco now known as the Art Institute for two years of postgraduate work. She taught in small colleges including a year at Georgetown University.
She met her husband while in California and they moved back to Kentucky in the spring of 1933 where they spent the next year living as “starving artists”. Thanks to President Roosevelt’s Public Works of Art Project she was “commissioned” to create the large fresco mural we now see on the wall in the lobby of Memorial Hall.
The government wanted some artwork done and I just happened to be the only person, apparently, in Lexington who was available to do a mural in the library for the University of Kentucky and I was assigned or asked to design a fresco in the concert hall on the campus called Memorial Hall. It was in the foyer of the building and so I did a fresco—Kentucky’s one and only and probably last fresco (Oral History Interview).
She was paid on straight commission, $38.00 a week. Her husband assisted by doing the initial plaster work even though he was not trained in that line of work. He had studied fresco so he did the prep work and she painted. His work was completed during the first half of the day while she worked the last half of the day making it so they did not see each other for eight-month period of time while the fresco was being completed. Typical of an artist’s perfectionism, she was not particularly satisfied with her work, but over time she came to appreciate it and enjoyed the “mellowing” of the colors with the passage of time.
The actual subject matter of the mural was not exactly what the artist initially considered for the project. She was thinking of including geography, geology and agriculture in the shape of the state of Kentucky, but with the input and suggestions by Edward Rannells, Kentucky’s local head at the time, she changed her course to the finished artwork now adorning the Memorial Hall lobby. She originally wanted to include all things Kentucky, but not necessarily have it be an historical overview. In the end that is what was agreed upon and she incorporated all the things that were indigenous to Kentucky, invented in Kentucky or by Kentuckians. It became the figurative piece of art with human events that Edward Rannells had wanted.
O’Hanlon included events such as the Chautauqua, where oratory, drama, and music were featured through the combination of lectures, concerts, and public events, and the Lexington county fair with it’s red horses from Man O War in her artwork, along with many other historical events in close relation to the area surrounding Lexington. “It’s one of the richest spots in the whole United States, it seems to me when I started digging into it, in historical material and very wonderful things had been invented, had been discovered there (Oral History Interview).” Her research took three of the eight months she devoted to working on the fresco and from that three months she acquired enough information to do up to six frescos, according to her husband.
As far as the construction process, O’Hanlon went about her own way of doing things. A typical fresco is made with lime putty because general dry limes and other limes that can be made with a water-based solution are not the best for this type of painting. O’Hanlon used the wrong putty anyway but not before testing it in the basement of Memorial Hall to see if it would hold up, which she later discovered it did when she returned to her work 30 years after it’s completion.
Not only did O’Hanlon use the wrong putty, but she also used some colors that are not traditional to the fresco. Due to the fact that Kentucky’s entire heat source comes from coal, it was very risky for her do a fresco type painting, especially with a unique color scheme. Luckily enough for O’Hanlon heating techniques have improved over the years making the quality and colors of her fresco flourish apposed to diminishing.
Since O’Hanlon did all of the painting herself, she would complete a very small portion of it a day because the content of her work was so detailed and contained so many different stories and anecdotes. Planning out how she would fit Lexington’s history on a forty feet by eight feet in height, forty feet long, wall took a great deal of time.
I started at the bottom with the earliest coming in by the pioneers, into the wilderness and gradually, as I moved up the wall, I also moved forward in time. Its sort of the top layer of the design actually was contemporary. The lower layer, within the design was the first historical introduction of the white man at any rate into the Indian country. And the center panel is going vertically, which could have been seen from way out the door. These panels and the center panel give this kind of content, table of contents, as you moved from bottom to top for the whole mural. It was lots of fun to do and in a sense very abstract (Oral History Interview).
The layout of the fresco was somewhat determined by the history and form, referring to the shape and size, of the images to be included. O’Hanlon sketched out drawings as she researched and meant for them to be freely interpreted by her as she was painting it and by those who would view it. Her images were drawn according to the local area’s landscapes and architecture whether they were rural, urban, or directly from the town. She liked to include material surrounding her to make her work more personal to its location.
At one end of the fresco is a man who held a hoe and at the other is a woman who held a history book and a rake. These could be symbols of the working people in the Lexington area since they were both portraits of people. The man was Wes Littlefield, a poet in the Lexington area that O’Hanlon knew. In addition to Wes Littlefield, O’Hanlon included professors on the university’s campus who “happened to impress her with the quality of their faces” in the fresco.
O’Hanlon’s fresco also depicts quite a few African Americans. Her relatives had African American servants throughout her childhood; therefore, she had a great deal of respect for them. At this time, it was well before racism had reached Kentucky. Kentucky was more accepting than the bordering southern states. There was segregation, but not in the fashion the more southern areas possessed.
The fresco was the only project in Lexington at the time, which might have been why O’Hanlon was free to include anything she wished to. She never had to submit a design; her only duty was to keep working. It’s apparent that she put a lot of thought into the fresco from the quality of each scene she includes and they set up and locations of each on the wall.
The wall in Memorial Hall O’Hanlon was given to work on was located in a narrow foyer which would be heavily populated by people during events and the time before or after class. O’Hanlon’s idea was that when there was a large group of people in there, their eyes could focus on any part of the fresco and would be able to find a complete story to be told; her intent was to have the piece not have to be in an empty space to able to send a message (Oral History Interview).
During the eight months of the fresco’s creation the people of Lexington gave no attention to the masterpiece in work or the artist behind the work. Even the University of Kentucky’s art department showed no interest in their very own graduate’s piece which was a soon to be historical art landmark on campus. Ann O’Hanlon described the town and it’s people as apathetic. Not one of the art students came over to watch the fresco being created.
The only audience O’Hanlon had while working was the university’s African American janitors. They would come in every night for their shift and watch her paint and occasionally bring her a snack. According to O’Hanlon, their curiosity was about the fresco’s design and the process in which it was being done. She received endless questions about it from them, which in turn kept her spirit up and gave her motivation and confidence to keep working on it.
O’Hanlon was on the final leg of the fresco when a former professor came in to see what she had been working on. In an interview she said, “He was slightly speechless and finally he said, ‘Well I didn’t realize this is what you were doing over here’, and then he said, ‘I’m amazed’, and proceeded to write a whole page article in the city paper on the thing.”
After the completion of O’Hanlon’s work in 1934, public interest increased slightly. However, it never sparked enough of an audience to be recognized like it should have been thus being one of the reasons O’Hanlon and her husband left Lexington as quickly as they could.
A study of Kentuckians stated, “Individuals may value the existence of arts events because they attend events, they wish to maintain the option to attend events, or they simply perceive cultural or other benefits from the existence of the arts, even if they do not attend” (Thompson et. al. 88). This applies to O’Hanlon’s fresco in the sense that it was never publicized in the right manner; therefore nobody was intrigued to see it, cared about what it was or who did it, or even knew it existed.
In fact, use of Kentucky averages may represent a lower bound estimate [of interest/support in the arts] given the lower income and education levels in Kentucky, and perhaps, a smaller public arts good, that is, a lower level of arts performances and exhibits available to state residents (Thompson et. al. 89).
Terry Teachout states, “It is possible, then, that we are witnessing not merely a decline in public interest in the fine arts but the death of the live audience as a cultural phenomenon”. O’Hanlon experienced this lack on interest from 1934 when she began the fresco until 1998 when she passed away. The sad part is that her fresco is still suffering from the absence of interest it receives.
When interviewing my photography teacher, who is a large part of the art department, about the fresco she admitted to never actually taking the time to go see the piece of work, but she had seen it in passing. “Whenever I enter Memorial Hall I always happen to be running late or going for an in-and-out reason, which is why I’ve never gotten to chance to stop and take in it’s beauty; I might have to do that now”, she said. This provides proof that sometimes it only takes knowledge of existence and the suggestion from another person to peak one’s interest for an individual to go visit a historical piece of art.
Ann O’Hanlon was a very talented mural painter of Kentucky and California who just did not get the credit she should have. Her fresco’s created was not an idea that she had always dreamed of creating; it was merely work the city assigned her to. O’Hanlon took the job and made it not only her own, but Lexington’s own. After months of research, sketching, and planning she was able to spend several more months creating a masterpiece that depicts all things Lexington to be a historical center of the University of Kentucky’s campus.