“When I walked into the door, it blew my mind,” Preacely says of the translucent representations of Africans who were enslaved in the United States. “The presentation, just the images themselves — I was on the verge of tears, because it was just so emotional, just looking at these images.
“One image in particular had a poem on it. And when I was reading that poem, I heard music in the background. And as I looked at the different images … I thought, ‘these images need music.’”
That display in Clark County in the winter of 2019 was one of the first showings of “I Was Here” after its debut in Downtown Lexington in the fall of 2018. The portraits, photographed by Lexington photographer Patrick Mitchell and created by visual artist Marjorie Guyon, were originally displayed in the windows of the downtown park then-named Cheapside, since renamed Henry A. Tandy Centennial Park in 2020. The park was one of the largest slave markets in the South, so the portraits stood as haunting reminders of what once happened in that public square.
Many of the images contain longitudes and latitudes significant to the Atlantic slave trade and words and phrases from the poem “Auction Block of Negro Weather,” written by former Kentucky poet laureate Nikky Finney.
“Part of the thinking behind the project was to bring what are basically very sophisticated images that synthesize history, geography, poetry, photography, into the public sphere,” says Guyon, who says that since its debut, “I Was Here” has become the focus of her work.
Displaying the images in the Lexington public square, where events such as the Farmers Market and Thursday Night Live take place, Guyon aimed to put the images and everything behind them in front of people who may not go to a museum or art gallery. Since it’s debut, the project has gone to a number of cities such as Louisville and New York, and places including libraries and historic sites. A year ago the art project received a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts helping expand the project, installing additional portraits for permanent display.
This summer, the project is making its debut at a sports venue: Lexington Legends Ballpark. And soon, everyone will be able to experience the project they way Preacely did, with sound. That’s because the new augmented reality exhibition will feature music the opera singer has provided.
The collaboration came about when Legends’ President and CEO Andy Shea was going to an event with Ashley Grigsby, the team’s ticket sales manager, and the woman who inspired the whole project when she visited Guyon in her studio overlooking Tandy Park. They passed one of the images of Grigsby and her son, Carson, and she pointed it out to Shea.
“I said, ‘We’ve got to have this at the ballpark,’” Shea said, standing in front of one of the images of Grigsby and her son at the park. “It’s all about inclusiveness and community, and that’s what the ballpark should be.”
The evening of June 26, Legends fans were greeted by portraits from the project in the windows of the ballpark’s taproom behind home plate, information about the project, and a new piece of music from Preacely and his ensemble, Virtuosity.
Before the game, the group performed a blended national anthem, incorporating “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a hymn by James Weldon Johnson known as the Black national anthem. The anthem has been sung prior to many sporting events in the past year after the regenerated conversation about race in the United States following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and the extrajudicial killing of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police.
But blending the two anthems wasn’t something Preacely or anyone else had heard before.
“That story started to come alive in terms of the story of the national anthem and the Black national anthem coming together, in harmony,” Preacely said of synthesizing the two anthems into one.
The crowd at the ballpark got a quick history of the national anthem being sung before sporting events. Then Virtuosity sang the blended anthem, verses from “The Star-Spangled Banner” flowing into “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and back. It was greeted with a roar from the crowd, and it seemed everyone was ready to play ball.
But “The Star-Spangled Banner” had been planned to follow the blended anthem, in deference to those that wanted to hear it. As Preacely sang, “Oh say can you see …” fans scrambled back to their feet and players ran back to the baselines, and Preacely took some pride in fans seeming to have been satisfied with the blended anthem.
“That’s going to be the change we need in the country for us to move forward,” he says. “When we have the courage to say, ‘OK, this is fine.’ ‘OK, this is who we are,’ and we can move on from there.”
It is emblematic of one of Guyon’s aims for the “I Was Here” project, “to bring this understanding of how broken our citizenship is, but how incredibly powerful it could be.”
More of the “I Was Here” art is planned for the ballpark, and there is more music in the works as well, including a blend of “Lift Every Voice” and “My Country Tis of Thee.” The musical aspect of the project started when parts of the project were exhibited at the Lexington Public Library, and a program was needed for the opening. Preacely and Virtuosity have recorded a number of pieces, particularly spirituals such as “Down to the River to Pray” and “Wade in the Water” planned for use on the project website and in augmented reality segments to accompany displays of the artwork.
This newest iteration of “I Was Here” finds itself in a moment when there is a lot of discussion of race and history taking place, including the 100th Anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, the first year Juneteenth was designated a holiday and high profile discussions of how issues such as slavery and its aftermath are taught in schools. In that way, “I Was Here” feels a bit prescient, illuminating the stories through art.
“It poses no opposition to anyone,” Guyon says. “There’s no argument in this project, only beauty and spirit.”
Rich Copley is a former arts writer and editor for the Herald-Leader who continues to enjoy Lexington’s arts and culture.
‘I Was Here’
Lexington Legends: Works from “I Was Here” will be on display at the Lexington Legends Ballpark through the summer. Visit milb.com/Lexington to learn more.