Remembering Lexington’s History of Slavery in the ‘I Was Here’ Project

By John Gregory | 8/05/19 8:00 AM

In the early decades of Lexington, townspeople and area farmers gathered around the old Fayette County courthouse to buy, sell, and trade an array of goods. You could find household wares and groceries, horses and hemp, and, in antebellum times, even humans.

That block of the young city was called Cheapside, and it soon gained a reputation as one of the largest slave markets in the nation. Thousands of African Americans were sold at Cheapside, usually to supply labor for plantations in the deep south.

That painful history drives a new public art project that seeks to honor the spirits of those enslaved men, women, and children. “I Was Here” is the brainchild of Lexington artist Marjorie Guyon. She appeared on KET’s Connections with one of her collaborators, Barry Darnell Burton, to discuss the project and its importance for the community.

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If you walk the Cheapside block today, along West Main Street between Mill and Upper Streets in downtown Lexington, you may feel like you’re being watched. And you are, by the images of African Americans peering at you from street-level windows and doorways. Some even watch over you from upper story windows.

The images of men, women, and children have an ethereal quality. They are washed by splashes of color – blues, greens, reds, and yellows – and they are eerily translucent, as if the ghostly portraits might disappear if you tried to touch them.

“This project is 21 ancestor spirit portraits that are meant to embody the people who were bought and sold in this public square,” says visual artist Marjorie Guyon.

“It’s a set of iconic images of African-American people: father, mother, sister, brother, husband, wife,” she says.

Guyon conceived of the project during a conversation with a friend about the mood of the country after the 2016 election. As they talked, Guyon gazed out the window or her art studio, which overlooks the Cheapside block. She says she had a vision of black women and children appearing in windows along the square. She felt they were the spirits of slaves once sold at Cheapside.

Adding Words to the Portraits

From that vision, Guyon enlisted the help of Lexington photographer Patrick Mitchell, who at that point she only knew by reputation.

“I didn’t know Patrick, but I stalked him,” she says with a laugh. “You have to get a feeling to know could we work together.”

Once Mitchell signed on to the project, he and Guyon searched for models for the spirit portraits they envisioned. They scanned Mitchell’s Facebook friends, and they recruited interesting looking customers at a local Walmart. Of the nine models they ultimately chose, Mitchell took the pictures, then Guyon applied her color washes to the portraits.

“I call it ‘contemporary ancient,’” she says. “There’s a way of making people timeless, and that is consistent throughout all of my work.”

Then Guyon recruited Affrilachian poet Nikki Finney to join the team. The former English professor at the University of Kentucky wrote a free verse for the project called “Auction Block of Negro Weather.”

“Lightning strikes touching the ground where they stood waiting to be sold. Screams pushing the air unmeasured. Six million eyes and arms in whirling disbelief unraveling from each other… I was here they remind us if we dare lift our eyes to dare look there way.”

One of the models for the project, Barry Darnell Burton, volunteered to write a prayer to accompany the portraits. He says he wanted to capture what the slaves auctioned at Cheapside must have felt, as well as the feelings of Native Americans driven from their homelands and immigrants who have sought refuge in the United States.

“Religion in America was very powerful back in those days and still is to a certain extent,” says Burton. “I feel that however you address it, Jesus, Jehovah, Buddha, there is a higher power at work in this country, so it must be a part for this to really reach all facets and people of life.”

In his prayer “Where Do I Begin?” Burton writes:

“I see the River of Blood that has been shed on the Trail of Tears. I see the mountains of bodies that have been left behind. The families broken. I feel the pain of the mothers whose children were snatched out of their arms. The fathers denied the right to see their sons grow… I will break the chains of the past. I will do this. I will make us proud.”

Fostering Dialog, Inspiring Humanity

Instead of traditional artworks that would be framed and hung in a gallery, Guyon produced her images on translucent Roman window shades. But she still needed a venue to display them. That’s when another idea struck.

“I’m like, it’s going to be on-the-street museum,” Guyon says. “What does that mean? So we had to figure that out.”

She recruited businesses around Cheapside to display the portraits in their windows and doors. Since they were printed on moveable shades, the owners could raise and lower the portraits as they needed to let more light into their establishments. That means an image someone sees today may not be visible tomorrow, similar to how a Kentucky slave might vanish from view once they were sold at auction and sent south.

“It is like a spirit,” Guyon says of the portraits. “You don’t know when you’re going to see it.”

She found what she calls a few “visionaries” who agreed to host the first portraits. Guyon says she hoped to insinuate the multi-layered, metaphoric images into a public space to inspire conversation and perhaps even social change.

“We can use this art as a way to begin to become human to each other,” she says.

As buzz about the displays spread, more business owners on the block requested portraits for their windows. Burton took on the task of installing the shades. He says the same portrait can have a whole new look simply by being placed in a different window.

As a portrait model, writer, and installer for the project, Burton says the images encourage people to think about the slaves once sold here and the lingering wounds slavery left behind. He says the pictures also allow viewers to connect deeply with the individuals depicted in the portraits.

“Have you ever wanted to stare at a person, but you’re afraid of what their reaction might be,” says Burton. “Well the ancestral spirits sort of allow you to stare at person and try to see what’s in their eyes, and see them without any fear of rejection or retribution.”

’Everywhere Needs This Program’

Earlier this year the project expanded to Winchester, and Burton says they are exploring future installations in Frankfort, Louisville, and St. Louis.

“Everywhere needs this program because people everywhere have a problem dealing with people for so many reasons,” says Burton. “There’s good and bad in everyone and we need to learn how to accept that… and come together as one person because, in the end, humanity is dependent on humanity.”

Guyon is pleased that “I Was Here” has captured the public’s attention. She attributes instinct, happenstance, and the guidance of the ancestor spirits for helping the project become a force for good in the world.

“There really has not been a map for this,” says Guyon. “This is a template that has not been created and we’re in the midst of creating it.”