By Anna-Claire Terry
A project three years in the making has been added to Opelika High School with a purpose to of telling the stories of the city’s rich history and culture.
The “heritage wall,” a series of sculptures in 55 panels depicting major Opelika eras from Native American times to present day, were placed along the exterior right corner of the walls of the performing arts center. Scenes illustrated in the artwork include millworkers, industrial revolutions, the growth of the hospital, wars, and trains traveling through the railroad town.
According to Superintendent Dr. Mark Neighbors, the project has been in the works since he had the idea during the building of OHS. Neighbors and David Payne, the architect who designed OHS, got Gary Wagoner, retired professor of art and ceramics at Auburn University, involved to create the wall. Joanna Blake, a former student of Wagoner’s and successful artist who has worked on the WWII memorial in Washington D.C., designed the scenes, and Wagoner transformed them into the panels. Each of the, rectangular panels along the wall took three months to create. Wagoner said the inside corner of the wall depicts present-day OHS with scenes of sports, extracurricular activities and academics, and the outside corner shows scenes from history. The process began in 2013 with a series of drawings that were sculpted by Blake in oil clay. Wagoner then created molds of the sculptures out of terracotta clay, a material with characteristics similar to brick. “I’m really happy with the way the work came to fruition,” Wagoner said.
Neighbors appointed a committee for the concept development of the project. Long-time residents of Opelika were asked questions about eras in the city’s history that are most prominent to them. “Residents got to help tell this story,” Neighbors said. “The budget was $100,000, and we obviously could not include everything, so we asked residents what stories and icons were important to them.” He added that Opelika is not just a city, but a community. “The schools have always been important to this community, and we wanted to go back and link the school to our history.” Neighbors said that everyone in Opelika can relate to the artwork in some way. “You can’t look at it and say ‘well, that is so-and-so up there,’ No, that could be anyone’s grandmother up there with that loom. It’s everyone. It’s the different parts of our history and the different people that made Opelika what it is today,” he said.
Farrell Seymore, OHS principal, said the wall has been an excellent addition to the school because it highlights the best of OHS’s students’ history and their future. “I think the beautiful thing about Opelika is the relationships of the people here, and that is reflected in the artwork outside of the school. When you have the different aspects of our community’s history highlighted, coupled with the different activities our students excel in, it makes for a wonderful blending and representation of who we are,” he said.