Artist Blog

Monthly Archives: March 2013

Artist Ayokunle Odeleye with his W.E.B Dubois Bust

Making History: Kennesaw State Professor Ayokunle Odeleye creates bronze bust of famed scholar W.E.B. Du Bois for historic Clark Atlanta University conference

Making History

CAU officials unveil bronze bust of W.E.B. Dubois by Kennesaw State Professor Ayokunle Odeleye, at right.Kennesaw State Professor Ayokunle Odeleye creates bronze bust of famed scholar W.E.B. Du Bois for historic Clark Atlanta University conference

 

It took two months, a cadre of Kennesaw State technicians, artists and students and many sleepless nights for Professor Ayokunle Odeleye to ready a bronze bust of noted scholar W.E.B. Du Bois for its public debut: a Feb. 23 unveiling at the ““W.E.B. Du Bois and the Wings of Atlanta 50th Anniversary Commemorative Conference” at CAU.

The 3.5-foot, 800-pound bronze bust of Du Bois sits atop a nearly 4-foot concrete pedestal near the entrance of the quadrangle in the center of CAU’s campus.  It commemorates the life and work of Du Bois, a scholar, activist, educator, historian and writer who, among his many accomplishments, cofounded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). During his tenure at the former Atlanta University, he wrote his most prominent book, “The Souls of Black Folk” and completed what some consider his best historical scholarship.

It was important to get this right, says Odeleye, who knows well the value of public art projects of this magnitude. Among the 22 public art projects he has created around the country, the Du Bois statue ranks alongside a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. he was commissioned to create in Pensacola, Fla., some 20 years ago.

Odeleye was commissioned to create the Du Bois bust for the conference, held 50 years after the scholar’s death in 1963. The interdisciplinary conference was the culmination of a year-long series of seminars on Du Bois at the institution where he spent 23 years ─ from 1897 to 1910 and 1934 to 1944. It brought together 140 panelists from 50 institutions to “return the legacy of Dr. Du Bois,” says Stephanie Y. Evans, chair of CAU’s Department of African-American Studies, Africana Women’s Studies and History and conference organizer. Evans and CAU President Carlton E. Brown commissioned Odeleye for the project.

“It was critical that we celebrate and commemorate the life and scholarship of Dr. Du Bois here at the HBCU where he served for 23 years and that we do so in a manner worthy of his stature,” Evans said.  “We didn’t have to look far to find a superb artist with the skill and expertise to create a special and lasting tribute here on the CAU campus, and someone who would work within our budget and time constraints.”

It was those constraints that guided the process and resources Odeleye employed at KSU to complete the mutli-stage project, which evolved from clay to wax to bronze.  Before it was completed, two Kennesaw State technicians, three faculty — all artists and sculptors — and five students contributed to the project.

The process began with Odeleye’s research on Du Bois and a careful study of dozens of photographs of the famed scholar over many years of his life. Coming up with a consolidated image was no small task considering Du Bois’ look was always changing, Odeleye said.

“Sometimes his mustache was curved, sometimes straight, sometimes he had a beard and sometimes not, and the suits he wore were completely different in 1904 and 1920.”

Once he settled on the image, the first step was to create a clay portrait, called a pattern, at his studio in Stone Mountain, Ga. That involved building a skeletal structure in Styrofoam and covering it with a steel skeleton. Sculpture student William Darnell worked with Odeleye over the winter holidays to pack the bust with almost 400 pounds of oil-based clay.

Once CAU’s Evans and President Brown reviewed and approved the clay pattern at the studio, the bust was moved by truck to the Kennesaw State sculpture studio with the help of 15 Clark Atlanta University students and students from the KSU Sculpture Club. The bust was separated into seven sections and cast in wax under the direction of shop technician Page Burch. Kristin Fox, a recent Kennesaw State graduate, senior Rachael Kidd, and Colin Skees also assisted.  The wax sections were welded back together into a bust so it could once again be approved.  The wax bust was again cut into seven sections, cast in a hard, solid resin-bonded sand and baked in a kiln, creating a negative space into which the hot liquid bronze could be poured. The bronze sections were then reassembled into one piece and finished.

Etienne Jackson, a Kennesaw State adjunct professor and sculptor who has worked with Odeleye for more than 10 years, assisted throughout the process. Chris Dziejowski, who cast the concrete pedestal for the bust and Keith Smith, assistant professor of art, were also among the Kennesaw State technicians and art faculty working on the project. Carole Mauge Lewis, professor of graphic design, created the composition for the text on the pedestal’s stainless steel plaque.

“We worked pretty much round the clock for more than 60 days to accomplish what should have taken six months to complete,” Odeleye said.  “When other people were out partying for New Year’s and enjoying themselves over the holidays, we were hard at work in the studio trying to complete this very important project.”

In addition to the contributions of Odeleye and art department faculty, staff and students, Kennesaw State faculty members participated as conference presenters and were on hand for the unveiling. Jesse Benjamin, associate professor of interdisciplinary studies and sociology, chaired a panel on DuBois, scholar and activist Walter Rodney and Atlanta’s Institute of the Black World.  Seneca Vaught, assistant professor of history, was on a panel discussing Pan-African policy studies.

“This is a truly historical conference that presents a great opportunity to elevate the KSU/CAU relationship to a much higher level,” said Benjamin, who also is presenting a weekly lecture series on Walter Rodney at CAU this semester. “Professor Oyodele’s amazing bust of Dr. Dubois on the CAU campus is a lasting reminder of that relationship, which we are sure to build on in the near future.”

With the hard work and all-nighters behind him, Odeleye focused on the honor of working on a bust of such an important historical figure.

“As a major public arts project, we created a sculpture that will be there and be cared for by an institution for a very long time,” he said. “Working on this lasting tribute to Dr. Du Bois gives me a chance to forever be associated with him, to attach myself to his legacy. Projects like this present a chance for me to leave a footprint of my existence on this earth long after I’m gone.”

– Sabbaye McGriff

Artist delivers ‘Jubilation’ to ’Burg

The old Walker–Grant School, a three-story brick structure built in 1938, was Fredericksburg’s first publicly supported school for black children—and Stanley White’s high school.

Though the students had to borrow a telescope from nearby James Monroe High School and teachers often purchased their own art supplies, White found the environment comfortable.

In 1968, when Fredericksburg fully integrated its schools, White and his fellow Walker–Grant classmates were sent to James Monroe, where he finished his senior year.

He gained access to endless reams of construction paper—but, in an environment that still wasn’t all that welcoming to black students, he also gained a sense of alienation.

He found solace in his art. Now White, who goes by the name Ayokunle Odeleye, is a professional sculptor and art professor in Georgia. His public sculptures are displayed all over, including Alaska, Texas and Maryland—and, as of Saturday, downtown Fredericksburg.

Odeleye has been working on a sculpture, commissioned by St. George’s Episcopal Church, which will be unveiled Saturday in the rose garden at the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center. The creation honors the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The 4-foot high sculpture has been dubbed “Jubilation” by its creator. The figure personifies freedom, with a prominent set of bronze arms preparing to release a dove into the sky.

“It reflects joy and celebration,” said Odeleye. “It’s the celebration of one knowing one is completely free as a person.”

TURNING TO ART

Local artist Johnny Johnson taught art to Odeleye at Walker–Grant and at James Monroe, but their relationship really flourished during the young artist’s senior year. No longer a starter on the basketball team at his new school, Odeleye had more time to discuss and create art.

“I think he was very much concerned whether or not he was treated fairly by the basketball coach at James Monroe. I told him, ‘You try to focus on your art,’” recalled Johnson.

And he did. That year, Odeleye won a “Best in Show” award for a painting, and displayed other works in shows in Fredericksburg, Stafford, Spotsylvania and Culpeper. He also had exhibits in local restaurants.

Johnson steered Odeleye, “towards the path of productive behavior and positive self-esteem in a small Southern town that could be hard on black youths,” according to the sculptor.

The tension associated with integration at James Monroe often sapped the spirits of black students, Johnson recalled.

He described the way try-outs for cheerleading at James Monroe left out black cheerleaders during the initial year of assimilation. He explained that the James Monroe squad had been pre-selected the previous spring, before the black cheerleaders had a chance to audition for a spot.

“But you keep in mind the black kids lost their Walker–Grant Tigers—their school. They shouldn’t lose their identity as being an integral part,” Johnson said.

Fredericksburg stayed largely segregated even after the assimilation took place. Odeleye said that he and many of the students from Walker–Grant stayed together in groups. Many were from Mayfield, a black community at that time.

“It [James Monroe] wasn’t really home for us,” he said. “But I stayed closely involved in art.”

Johnson described Odeleye as an active supporter of the civil rights movement through his art and ideals. The push of African–American culture into a Eurocentric-dominated society would later be the theme of many of Odeleye’s works.

PURSUING A DREAM

Johnson encouraged Odeleye to apply to Virginia Commonwealth University, and he was honored with a partial scholarship from Johnson’s fraternity. He went from there to Howard University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in art education and a master’s degree in sculpture.

Along with theory and technique, Odeleye studied African–American art, American history and other social issues surrounding African–Americans at the time.

He now uses this research and creativity to create public sculptures out of wood, bronze, stainless steel and other materials.

Pensacola, Fla., is the home of his 3-foot tall Martin Luther King Jr. bust crafted from bronze, while Atlanta houses his 48-inch-high, 72-inch-long mahogany piece titled “Struggles and Achievements of African American Women.”

Odeleye creates art for public spaces partly as a way to “define, energize and humanize urban environments,” and also to leave pieces of himself behind on this Earth as his legacy.

The artist is currently a professor of art at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, and, besides that, works on design and fabrication at Odeleye Sculpture Studios.

His newest creation will counter the negative aspects of Fredericksburg’s past, a visual already represented by the slave auction block on the corner of William and Charles streets, according to the artist.

Johnson said his former student has grown into an artist who inspires him.

“He’s a good role model, not just for black students, but for any student who wants to live a dream,” said Johnson.

WANT TO SEE?

Ayokunle Odeleye, a James Monroe High School graduate, will unveil his sculpture “Jubilation” Saturday at the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center.

The piece, commissioned by St. George’s Episcopal Church, celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The unveiling will take place after a 10 a.m. service at the church, 905 Princess Anne St., and a “witness walk” to the museum at William and Princess Anne streets.

See images of Odeleye’s work in progress at stgeorgesepiscopal.net/galleries/view/993 and see more of his pieces at odeleyesculpturestudios.com

Charlotte Rodina: 540/374-5444
crodina@freelancestar.com