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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