By Diane Gasper-O’Brien
HAYS, Kan. — The project took nine months and more than 300 man-hours to complete. But it took just a few minutes to unveil a historical project that the artist hopes will impact students for a lifetime.
Three large murals hanging high above the walkway of the main entrance in Fort Hays State University’s Memorial Union were unveiled at the annual President’s Gala Saturday night. They are the first of six murals that are called “The Journey.”
Gasps and utterances of awe were heard throughout the crowd of 300-plus as the mural covers dropped to the floor as the artist stood back and watched.
“I wanted to bring a look of our history to the campus,” said Joel Dugan, assistant professor of art and design at Fort Hays State who painted the murals. “I think this will be a marker for our region of western Kansas, hopefully an anchor like the WPA markers. Those are monumental markers for all those towns.”
Dugan was referring to the Works Projects Administration projects of the 1930s in which construction of public buildings and roads provided millions of Americans with employment during the Great Depression. The projects are identified with nearby markers.
The center panel of “The Journey” is a painting of Picken Hall, the first building on campus. It is flanked on the left by a painting of Historic Fort Hays, a frontier post for the U.S. Army in the mid to late 1800s from which the city of Hays and the university got their names. To the right of the Picken Hall panel is a painting of the train station in Hays, signifying the importance of the railroad in the city’s history.
“Wow, I was very impressed,” said Bobbi Dreiling, a 1970 FHSU graduate who now lives in Wichita and was in attendance at Saturday’s event. “And I was impressed with the artist. He seems very excited about his students and showing they can make a living in the arts.”
The train station holds special significance to Dreiling; she and her husband, Rich, got engaged at the train station.
Both of the larger murals intrigued retired professor Ellen Veed as well.
“I rode the train to Hays for my interview at Fort Hays State,” said Veed, who taught mathematics from 1960 to 1998. Veed, who still lives in Hays, said she was also impressed with the color the murals bring to the Memorial Union walls.
“I especially liked the brightness,” she said. “Those skies are my skies.”
Dugan, who is entering his sixth year at FHSU, came up with the idea for the murals after taking students in one of his classes to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., during the fall of 2015. The students were captivated by the artwork of Thomas R. Benton and came back to FHSU wanting to emulate Benton’s work.
“We were talking about the importance of public art, how it builds a culture, ” said Dugan, who approached Dr. Mirta M. Martin, FHSU president, about the possibility of painting historical murals to hang on campus.
They agreed upon a site — the student union — that Dugan hopes will “leave the open door to let viewers to be active participantsd.”
He specifically was talking about the center panel, which features a silhouette of a person walking in front of Picken Hall, named after the first president of FHSU, William S. Picken.
“I wanted to allow the viewers to interpret the silhouette as themselves,” Dugan said. “They can see themselves going out into the courtyard and find themselves walking down that pathway.”
Martin said she well remembers the welcome feeling that overcame her when she first walked across the FHSU campus two years ago when she came to Hays as a finalist for the presidency.
“These murals embody the frontier spirit of Fort Hays State,” Martin said. “They signify the journey of our university over the past 114 years and its transformation to become the destination of choice.
“Fort Hays State University is most fortunate to be able to attract such incredibly talented people,” she added. “We see them throughout our faculty our staff, our community. Joel Dugan is one of those people. His talent transformed a plain canvas and made it come alive with our history. These murals will adorn the walls of our union, and they will bear testimony to our journey.”
Dugan began work on the project in October and spent many a night and weekend working on his project. He painted them in a separate location, then moved them to the union a few days before the gala.
He will continue that journey with three more murals going up in the Memorial Union during the next year. The next one — depicting the seal, or brand, of the university — is scheduled for completion and unveiling for Homecoming 2016, which is set for the weekend of Oct. 1-2.
That will hang over a portrait of Dr. Martin, which is set for completion and unveiling at the 2017 President’s Gala.
The other two murals will identify 1) the arrival, the introduction and the exchange of what takes place when students come to campus and are guided and transformed during their college career; and 2) their graduation and transition into the community.
“This is the history and significance of what we take for granted,” Dugan said. “I hope these murals stand as a legacy piece. The ability to establish a legacy is really important.”