story by Jamie Smith
photo of sculpture courtesy of Russell Cothren
FAYETTEVILLE — When many people think of Arkansas and integration, images from Central High School in Little Rock are what come to mind. Nearly a decade before, Arkansas history was made when Silas Herbert Hunt was admitted to the University of Arkansas School of Law.
Hunt, the first black student admitted for graduate or professional studies at an all-white, Southern university, will be honored Wednesday (Aug. 29) with a monument created by Arkansas sculptor Bryan Massey, professor of art at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. The monument will be dedicated at 4:30 p.m. between the Pi Beta Phi Centennial Gate entrance and Old Main.
Massey said he was chosen from a total of 33 artists who responded to a call for artists to memorialize Silas Hunt. Massey was recently selected as one of 84 black artists nationally for inclusion in a new book called Studios and Work Spaces of Black American Artists, according to a press release from the University of Arkansas.
“I’m from North Carolina originally. I was not aware of who he was, but once I found out who Silas Hunt was, I knew I had to be a part of that and tell his story,” Massey said. “I grew up in the ‘60s and realize that what he did was phenomenal.”
The Conway artist created five concepts that he presented to the University of Arkansas Public Art Oversight Committee, without telling them which one was his favorite. The committee chose the selection that Massey said was secretly his favorite. The monument is inspired by a scene from the Disney movie The Lion King where the lion king’s new son, Simba, is presented to the lion pride with outstretched arms.
“When I think of Silas Hunt, he had the support of his family and of his community,” Massey said. “He was about to step out and do something that had never been done before.”
The medallion that is at the top of the monument is cast in bronze and depicts the law school how it appeared in 1948, when Hunt was admitted. The building has changed over the years, but Massey captured the original look from pictures of Hunt at the building. The sculpture is limestone, which represents the support that Hunt had in his brave endeavors. The steel base represents his strong foundation, Massey said.
“The University is recognizing a very important chapter in its history, in Arkansas history and the history of America,” Massey said.
Jeannie Hulen, chairman of the art department and associate professor of ceramics, is a part of the committee that chose Massey’s concept. She calls Massey the “perfect fit” for being the monument’s creator. His ability to capture Hunt’s story, the materials that he used, his experience with creating monuments and his Arkansas residency all contributed to Massey being an excellent choice for the project.
This monument is the first artwork commissioned by the UA Public Art Oversight Committee. The committee is focused on finding the best international, local and regional artists who can enhance the campus with their work.
“[The university] already has some pretty amazing pieces that are extremely important but we want to expand that to be like a permanent art collection on our campus,” Hulen said. “This is a monument piece and it’s different from different aspects that the creative art committee is doing.”
The Northwest Arkansas region has been growing in its focus on the creative economy in recent years and the University has had a strong dedication to the arts for 60 years, Hulen said. The committee is working to enhance that focus and experience.