On the cream-colored wall of Athens artist Broderick Flanigan’s studio on Vine Street hangs about half of his 25-portrait collection which was recently featured in his exhibit, Sitting with the Elders.
Soon these stories will join countless others in a book Flanigan is planning to write which will highlight black Athenians — from Mary Frances Early to Archibald Killian, hired as one of the city’s first two black police officers in 1962 — who shaped the city, yet are relatively unknown
Flanigan began painting when he was about 5 years old after trying to emulate what his mother, Angela, painted or drew. Over the years, Flanigan said art soon became one of his passions.
A 30-day art challenge he saw on Facebook, Michael L. Thurmond’s book, “A Story Untold: Black Men and Women in Athens History” and an invitation to work with a University of Georgia graduate student on Hot Corner, Athens’ former black business district, were the leading sources of inspiration behind Flanigan’s exhibit.
Flanigan said the idea for the portraits came from a vision of “really bring[ing] back to life” the oral accounts and histories of some of the people in the community he talked to, as well as his own experiences in Athens.
“When I first started going to Mayor and Commission meetings, I would see pictures on the wall in the lobby of the city hall, and it would be all white men and a few white women of past mayors,” Flanigan said. “And I was thinking to myself, ‘Where’s the other side of that history? Where are the other leaders from the black community?’”
Flanigan’s exhibit aimed to highlight these unsung heroes and will soon be featured the book Flanigan hopes to create in the near future. During his research process, Flanigan came across “many shocking discoveries.”
One of those discoveries was that Flanigan’s own grandmother worked as a nurse at a hospital in Athens while the city was still segregated.
“So it was just interesting to learn some of that history and to dig some of it out,” Flanigan said. “It’s been quite an amazing journey and I’m still kind of riding the wave.”
While originally planning on painting 28 portraits, only 25 were painted and completed for the exhibit. Featured were people such as revered Athens educator Elizabeth King and Jessie Barnett, a leading advocate during the Civil Rights movement and a founder of the Athens Area Human Relations Council among other achievements.
To paint the portraits themselves, Flanigan said he used photographs but would talk to the featured people themselves, or their family members if they were deceased, to “think about their mannerisms, their personality [and] certain things about them who kind of made them who they are.”
“I am really glad to see young people are getting more interested into history, particularly of Athens.”
— Kenneth Dious, the first black man to practice law in northeast Georgia
One of the local citizens highlighted was Kenneth Dious who not only was the first African American to practice law in northeast Georgia, but also the first black man to integrate football at the University of Georgia after attending spring practice with the football team in 1966. Dious is currently the owner of his own law practice Kenneth Dious & Associates and said he didn’t know he was going to be featured until he went to the closing presentation on the last day of the exhibit, but felt “really honored.”
“I am really glad to see young people are getting more interested into history, particularly of Athens,” Dious said. “And I’m really proud of him for doing that and we want to be very supportive of him.”
Beth Sale, the exhibitions program specialist for the Lyndon House Arts Center, said she has worked with Flanigan before, but was “delighted” when he came to them with the proposal. Sale said the closing event was “heartwarming” and spoke to the overall positive feedback the exhibit received during its month-long run.
While most art is valued in terms of what it adds to the community, according to Sale, Flanigan’s does that and much more.
“Broderick’s specifically is incredibly important to the city … [he] is representing an underserved population, he is depicting people’s stories that are not told in mainstream history,” Sale said.
While Flanigan’s project plays an important role in relaying history, Sale also said it can hopefully tackle problems like poverty and crime.
Trading portraits for pages
At the talk held on the last date of the exhibit, Flanigan announced he would be turning the popular exhibit into a book.
In order to do so, Flanigan said he will have his “work cut out” for him as he will have to paint several more portraits. Yet, despite the extra challenges associated with transforming his exhibit into a publication, Flanigan is looking forward to it.
“I’m feeling jazzed about it — I’m feeling very excited and very optimistic about it,” Flanigan said. “I feel like there are people who are looking forward to see this work and see this done. I’m really thankful and blessed for all of that.”
According to Flanigan, the portraits symbolize the importance of sitting down with elders to learn history due to the wisdom and knowledge passed down by hearing their stories.
The former exhibit and eventual book play an important role in the Athens community and illuminate the city’s history, and the people behind it, which should never be forgotten.
“A lot of what I found in those stories was stories of courage, resilience [and] persistence ... in the face of diversity,” Flanigan said.