From 8 a.m. to noon for a three-week Maymester class, Rachel Ward followed the simple instructions of adding paint, drawing a line or making a triangle from her art instructor Alex Stelioes-Wills.
“There was a lot of not knowing what was going on,” Ward said. “He [Stelioes-Wills] would say make that gray warmer, make it thinner or make that pink more pink.”
Ward was well aware of the significance of the task at hand and understood the importance of following the exact process for creating a mural.
Just the previous spring semester, she took part in Dr. Beverly Joyce’s museum studies class, which focused on researching the “Those Who Dared” commemoration. Ward was part of a task force of students who spent countless hours inspecting yearbook after yearbook looking for photos that would shed light upon the lives of those who dared. The photos were then shared with Andy Snyder, gallery assistant, to be put into a physical exhibit.
At the end of May, Stelioes-Wills’ mural painting class had constructed three panels. As described by Ward, they had color and shapes, but the work was not yet done. Stelioes-Wills would now begin to brush in the story of the “Fabulous Six,” the first African-American students to enroll at then-Mississippi State College for Women in 1966.
When asked about the work, Stelioes-Wills credits the invention and initiative of the triptych to giants. For non-art majors, a triptych is a picture or carving on three separate panels that is typically displayed side-by-side. More specifically, he references a quote from Isaac Newton, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” The real work as explained by Stelioes- Wills was the scholarship and research done by students; Derek Webb, university archivist; Dr. Erin Kempker, chair of the department of History, Political Science and Geography; and Dr. Beverly Joyce, professor of art history.
During the summer of 2015, Kempker offered student internships to help facilitate the “Those Who Dared” commemoration. One day during a brainstorming session alongside the Office of Alumni, Austin Rayford, a senior communications major and intern, offered the idea of a mural.
“We thought that the mural would be a good physical representation to commemorate the women who integrated the university. The idea was to have something that would be a permanent marker. The idea of a mural was embraced by the group because we hoped to see something that would depict the women and evoke emotions, something that would make people remember and never forget,” said Rayford.
Like real estate, the first decision for the mural was location, location, location. After ideas were passed back and forth, the final resting place of the mural would be the newly renovated Fant Memorial Library. With the potential for multiple display locations, the mural became a triptych for easier mobility. Professor Ian Childers and Snyder were then brought in to construct the three 6-foot-tall panels.
After developing a general concept and rough draft, Stelioes-Wills described the painting of the triptych more open than his traditional process. What he relates to a paint by number system, his traditional process is broken down by shapes and areas, then assigned to students who start with larger brushes and larger areas then progress to smaller brushes and smaller areas.
Stelioes-Wills explained, “Because of the layering and transparency of images overlapping, there was a lot more making decisions on the fly…. there was more reacting to what was on the panel.”
Three tables, three easels and three windows displayed equally across the three panels of the triptych once completed. Continuing the overarching theme, three women are displayed walking down the sidewalk silhouetted by the Columbus skyline. The journey tells a story. With the scattered documents and pictures partnered with the changing architecture each individual panel continues to tell of the journey through time.
“With the windows it allowed the option of flexibility. You’re not sure what you are seeing is a reflection or that you’re looking through the window,” described Stelioes- Wills.
In the first panel, the window is styled around a 30’s-40’s architecture while the middle panel reflects a 50’s-60’s style followed by a 70’s-80’s style on the far right panel.
Stelioes-Wills said, “The movement of the story shifts from the moment before desegregation to immediately after. The last panel is the most positive where it’s the story of the 70’s all the way into the 90’s.”
On Sept. 15, the doors opened to The W Art & Design building. Students, faculty and staff of The W rubbed shoulders and elbows for the unveiling of the “Those Who Dared” painting. The unveiling of the triptych and other student-led projects produced a crowd that far exceeded expectations. Kempker speculated it was the biggest crowd she had ever seen in the gallery and that it may have even doubled any event that she could remember.
“When you look at the painting, it has depth and you’re looking through glass,” described Kempker when she first saw the mural. “You’re looking at something that is being reflected. It’s really stunning how he [Alex] did that visually.” The journey of the “Fabulous Six” at The W was like the sidewalk--long, bumpy and rough-- but would lead to an unseen destination. On the far right of the painting there’s an open door. It symbolizes both opportunities to past generations and many generations to come. For the open door, we say, ‘Thank you, Fabulous Six.’
To best summarize the painting and the achievements of those who dared, Kempker simply explained, “History is always in service to the reality of today.”