University celebrates 192 years

Lavette Williams, Editor-in-Chief

One hundred ninety-two years after the University of North Alabama was founded, students and faculty gather in Collier Library to unveil the Year of the UNA Woman mural.

The 30-foot wall previously honored the life and career of Wendell Gunn, who was the first African American student to enroll and graduate from the university in 1965.

Now, it pays tribute to another set of trailblazers – to the 150 years of women who aided in establishing the university and the community.

This is not the only homage the university has paid to women this year. In addition to the mural, there has been a magazine, theatrical performances and half time shows. There is even a book in the process. One of many admirations, this mural is definitely the most vibrant accolade.

Jeffery Bibbee, the associate dean for the College of Arts, Sciences and Engineering (CASE), said the Year of the UNA Woman mural is the essence for public history.

“As a member of the history department, the variety of stories we have as an institution are wonderful, rich and diverse but it’s not easy to share those until you have a way to make it accessible to the public,” Bibbee said. “That’s where this began a great way everybody can enjoy this. Our students can sit in the library, study, have a cup of coffee and take in this information and connect themselves to the much bigger institution that they’re a part of.”

Bibbee said when there is an institution that is 109 years old, what happened in 1830 seems “very abstract.”

“[The mural] makes it quite living,” said Bibbee. The Year of the UNA Woman mural was a collaboration between the Department of History, the Department of Visual Arts and Design and UNA Collier Library, who granted wall space for the two-year interpretive mural rotations.

History professor Brian Dempsey, with the assistance from his graduate students, led the history team for the mural. The team conducted the research during the fall semester, where they went in the library archives, in digital databases and around campus to compile biographical portraits and historical context for the women interpreted on the mural.

Some of the women that were highlighted were Anne Clem Whitaker, Birdie Bailey, Pamela K. Long, Ande Jones, Susan Kirkman Vaughn and Martha Spain Gaskins. Ending the timeline of women on the wall was visual arts and design professor Chiong-Yiao Chen.

Chen, who led a group of students in the creation of the mural, was recognized for her many contributions to UNA’s art and design program. When there was first mention of her inclusion in the mural, Chen revealed that she was very “tickled.” Chen was not expecting her name to make the wall and was flattered that Dempsey and his team had considered her.

“I do have a very unique journey in life,” said Chen. Chen came to the United States to study Art and Design, where she chose to experience regional culture, to find places where she could apply her talent and be faithful to her commitment as an educator.

“I liked the way [the history team] framed my identity,” Chen said. “I was honored. I’ve had so many adventures  in my life and the fact that they picked out my two accomplishments I had directly relates to UNA’s education, I thought that was very well done.” While the mural may have seemed to come into fruition quickly over break, the preparation and creations took up quite a bit of teams’ time. Graduate student Candice Herban said that in late December, the art team sometimes worked overnight, trying to design a form of concept and get their graphics in.

In addition to this, the art team had to figure out a different way to tell the story with their graphics. “The subject was very broad,” Chen said. “We needed a graphic to tie it all together. So, I decided that we were going to take an abstraction approach to enrich the visual design and to inject a lot of energies and colors. [We did this] so that it would give [off] a sense of celebration.”

And celebratory, it was. Crowding into Collier Library on Founder’s Day, students, faculty, UNA President Ken Kitts and wife and members of the UNA Taskforce take in bite-size pieces of the journeys women, who helped shape the university and the community, endured. Bibbee said that this mural is barely scratching the surface.

“This timeline could wrap around the building 18 times and we still wouldn’t have touched on every important woman who impacted this institution,” Bibbee said. “But what you do see is a great representation of people across campus and across its history … whether it’s Barbara Glenn who was a true trailblazer – not just at UNA but at any higher education in the South or Birdie Bailey who was a phenomenal person you can’t help but admire.” While the Wendell Gunn mural is still searching for its new, public and accessible home, the Year of the UNA Woman mural will likely stay up for two years, serving as both a resource and a reminder of how far the university has come with the help from pioneer women in the community.