The Fresco of the Century: Christa Cabot
Kentucky is a state with a lot of unknown people, places, and objects. After taking a closer look, there is much more to learn about Kentucky and its history than what meets the eye. One such object that is under-known in Kentucky can be found on The University of Kentucky’s campus. Inside the entry-way at Memorial Hall, a well hidden treasure exists. This treasure is a fresco mural painted by Ann O’Hanlon’s. This fresco depicts several significant central Kentucky events throughout its history. Despite its size, it easily goes unnoticed. Most people either walk right by without seeing it, or when they do, they do not really know and understand what is being showcased. But a true Kentucky Historian appreciates its historical value and the significance of the fresco.
The fresco in Memorial Hall was painted by Ann O’Hanlon, a University of Kentucky graduate, in the early 1930’s as a commissioned art project. Its forty foot expanse stretches across an entire wall and depicts many scenes from central Kentucky history. These events and places range from westward expansion to the Mary Todd Lincoln house. Ann was twenty six years old when she completed the piece as “a part of a Public Works of Art Project” (ukcc.uky.edu). The historical organization of the piece is one in which can be overlooked if only seen for a moment. Chronologically, the significant events depicted in the fresco begin at the bottom with the settlements of Bryan Station and Harrodsburg and move up to the top showing places such as the Blue Grass Fair and the Mary Todd Lincoln House.
Fresco paintings are an uncommon creation in modern days. They first came about in Europe many centuries ago. For example, Holy Trinity, which was painted by the great Masaccio in the fifteenth century and is located in the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella, in Florence. A fresco by definition is “the art of painting upon damp, fresh, lime plaster” (Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia). Most artists that paint fresco murals must have a well thought out plan for the painting from the beginning because they must work at a rapid pace due to the quick drying time of the wet plaster.
The first layer of scenes located at the bottom show more of the settlement of Kentucky and the hardships the pioneers faced. The commonwealth of Kentucky was on the edge of America’s country lines for some years. In fact, since it was not far from the eastern seaboard, it was known as the frontier while expansion of land westward was still occurring. Westward expansion is the second scene labeled when reading the legend from left to right. The image shows a family of four traveling west in hopes of fulfilling the current “American dream” of starting a farm and building a home for themselves. In the mid nineteenth century, the idea of manifest destiny caught on and Americans began to believe that it was their divine right to expand their territory as far west as the Pacific Ocean. A few scenes to the right of this image, another icon illustrates Ann’s parents in a symbolic form of the sacrifices made by the pioneers choosing to leave their homes to explore new frontier and develop the nation.
Harrodsburg, the oldest town in Kentucky “was founded in 1774 by a stalwart band of pioneers led by James Harrod, of Pennsylvania. It was the only “colonial” city and the first permanent English settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains. Referred to as the “Birthplace of the West,” Harrodsburg has a proud and remarkable heritage” (harrodsburgcity.org). The Harrodsburg settlers in the painting are shown by a woman retrieving
water from a river in front of the settlement built with high walls and a gate surrounded by many trees. This town impacts history because it led to the formation of more Kentucky villages and eventually cities. The settlement of townships in Kentucky gave the Americans hope for westward expansion to succeed.
Another settlement shown on the lower level of the painting is the village of Bryan Station. One of the reasons why this settlement was so important was the role that the pioneer women played during the Siege of Bryan’s Station. During this battle, the women “carried water from the spring to extinguish fires in the fort from burning arrows” (Trowbridge 58). This settlement was located farther away from water unlike most others. Eventually a monument was erected to commemorate these brave women forputting their lives in danger to help save their neighbors.The siege was important because it led to one of the bigger battles during the Revolutionary War, the Battle of Blue Licks which was in 1782.
The first printing press in Kentucky was established by John Bradford in Lexington and he was the creator of the newspaper called the Kentucky Gazette (Collins). The invention of the printing press was important because it impacted the ability to create mass communication in a simple and effective manner. Newspapers got the news out quickly and more efficiently than before. The printing press also cut down the price of printing books extensively which increased their supply. As an outside influence, the printing press caused many changes in production of information all across the nation including Kentucky.
Knowledge is something that can also be gained in a classroom. The first one-room schoolhouse in the area stands for something more than its title. It is unknown which schoolhouse was actually the first to be built in close proximity to Lexington, but that does not mean it is not important. One room schoolhouses were built to educate children of all ages in close walking distance since automobiles were nonexistent at the time of their creation. The teachers at these schools were former students themselves not long before. They would arrive early to start a fire during the winter months in order to keep the children warm (pbs.org). One room schoolhouses led the way for other schools to come in the future. Also in the scene with the schoolhouse, there is a little bit of playfulness and joy. A little boy can be seen pulling on a girl’s hair just a few seats away. Of the main images that are labeled in the painting’s legend, this is the scene that seemed to be the most carefree.
The Lexington Library shown at the upper left portion of the painting is the oldest public library west of the Appalachians and was founded in 1796. Public libraries can often be considered as an essential part of having an educated and literate population. Libraries can be symbols as to the understanding that there is a necessity to have a commonplace where large amounts of books and information can be found. Although libraries today are not used in the same way that they were before, because of the Internet, they are still wonderful places to have group meetings for projects and also have quiet areas to study.
Slavery is shown in a small portion of the painting. Although segregation is displayed throughout the entire piece, this scene could be viewed as the most intriguing and is located just below the central depiction of the railroad and shows slaves picking tobacco. As a border state, Kentucky was neither completely for nor against slavery but there was a significant population of them. In
fact, of the four Border States during the Civil War, Kentucky had the largest population of slaves. The slaves in the painting are shown picking tobacco, this was the main cash crop in the early years in which slavery was legal. Tobacco, as well as hemp, were the main crops that required the use of slaves because they were labor-intensive crops. Ownership of large amounts of slaves was uncommon in Kentucky since there were not many large plantations like in the Deep South. An actual black and white picture of slaves in nearly the exact same position can be found on Google Images when searching the Great Depression. The image is within a photographic essay made up of pictures showing what sufferings citizens of America had to face in the early 1930’s.
Another scene located in the middle portion of the painting with all the inventions depicts early experimentation with the steamboat. Although not as successful in transportation as the steam engine which came later, the steamboat made traveling up and down rivers much simpler. The invention of the steamboat increased the level of trade between the Northern and Southern states because two-way travel along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers was now possible. With the creation of the steamboat came the canal craze until railroads came into play. Also located in the center of the piece is an image of a railroad with only whites being allowed to ride on the train. The railroad solidified America as a country of development and innovation. In addition to these advancements in technology, there is also a labeled scene in the middle belt of the fresco that shows Dr. Samuel Brown giving the first smallpox inoculation west of the Alleghenies. He “inoculated more than 500 people by 1802” (Zawoyski).The vaccination was introduced in 1801 and saved many lives.
Ann O’Hanlon seems to value education above everything else. At least that is what can be assumed by looking at all the scenes combined. That is, if she chose which events and scenes to portray. Education can be easily be seen in the depictions of the one-room schoolhouse, the Lexington library, The University of Kentucky the state’s flagship university, men reading under trees for pleasure, the first printing press, Whitehall, The Chautauqua Debate, and the image of the Sayre School orrey. Also called “Barlow Planetarium” the orrey was a mechanical model of the solar system which displayed the educational drive in the space race. Whitehall is also painted at the top of the piece and represents a central lecture hall and place for learning here on UK’s campus.
The Chautauqua Debate was a billiant adult education movement that was in many communities across America. These under-known debates “brought entertainment and culture for the whole community, with speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, preachers and specialists of the day” (sdrc.lib.uiowa.edu). Such
meetings were used to educate the poor whites who did not or were not able to attend schools to learn. Having well educated citizens is an important part of any culture.
The Blue Grass Fair scene shows the richer side of Kentucky and history in depicting a large annual event that prospered into something bigger than probably anyone imagined it would in just one area. This particular scene is located at the top of the painting. Horse sales, shows, and races stand as the single industry that the state is so easily known for. The juxtaposition of the rich side of life with horse racing to the poor side with slaves working in the fields sends such a straightforward message about Kentucky’s past with segregation and separation.
Gratz Park, also painted at the top of the fresco, is one of the more historically significant districts in downtown Lexington. According to the National Registrar of Historic Places Travel Itinerary, it “is one of the most beautiful areas… (which is) comprised of a city park and several large residences.” It was named after an early Lexington businessman named Benjamin Gratz. His home is located on the edge of Gratz Park on the corner of Mill and New streets. Also stated from the registrar, it was said in the words of Kentucky architectural historian Clay Lancaster, “the park has charm, atmosphere, a sense of tranquility and of history, and it provides an oasis of planting tucked into the cityscape.”
At the top right, Mary Todd Lincoln’s house it shown. It is a “simple two story brick building on West Main Street was home to Robert S. Todd and his family, including his daughter Mary, wife of the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln” (nps.gov). The Lincoln house shows the higher class lifestyle. Mary Todd was did not live there her whole childhood, but moved there when she was fourteen years old. This house is important because Mary later went on to be the first lady and represent Kentucky well in the White House with Abraham Lincoln who was also from Kentucky.
There are also scenes on the very edge that are slim in width but extend from bottom to top completely. The one on the left end shows a made looking inward with a hoe in his hands. In the legend, it says he is Wesley Littlefield, a poet friend of Ann O’Hanlon during the early 1930’s. Wesley represents creativity in Lexington at the time of the painting. He could also be interpreted as a pioneer with the hoe that he is holding being a symbol of the hard times they had to face in order to travel west and start new settlements and stay strong all the while. Despite the hardship they found time to unwind and relax trying to enjoy life although it was hard.
To the far right of the painting not in direct view, lies a woman who symbolizes the artist and a mother figure representing productivity and intellectuality of a female. Early on in history, women and men were not created equal. Women were not given the right to vote until 1920 at the age of eighteen. Women’s suffrage raised their standard of intelligence and was viewed in a new light. Ann O’Hanlon was the oldest of five and she helped “to raise her younger siblings while her mother became somewhat of a local celebrity for the “beaten biscuits” she used to make and sell in order to help make ends meet” (ohanloncenter.org).
The overall mood of the painting may be melancholy, sad, and plain due to the difficult economic times of the depression. Each scene has a story to be told and creates a different impact on the history or Kentucky. The value of seeing these struggles for survival and advancement is significant for generations to acknowledge a life being beautiful and peaceful without the complication of excessive consumer goods. The creative ideas and imaginative inventions shown in the fresco can inspire American citizens to take heart in difficult economic times.
Although the painting creates a dour feeling within its main scenes, there also exists a mood of playfulness which is represented by the children in the schoolhouse and the young adults playing croquet and dancing to the upbeat tunes of the slaves. The hardships seem to stand out more when a person is looking at the painting because it was painted during the Great Depression which was a time of desperation for many. According to Mrs. Janie Leech, the state of the economy was severe and approximately twenty-five percent of American citizens were jobless. It all began when the stock market crashed in 1928 on a day that is remembered as Black Tuesday. That time period is often looked over since it was such a time of disparity and loss. Those rough years did not end swiftly like they had hoped. It took a war to end this large downturn. And not just any war, World War II.