Etching History Into the Halls

By Gretchen Eichenberg

New art installation at G.W. Carver Middle school celebrates the history of the man and the school

“This is a beautiful piece of art that honors the school’s rich history,” Waco ISD superintendent Susan Kincannon said. “G.W. Carver has had an incredible impact on generations of Wacoans. Its legacy is one of providing an outstanding education and nurturing special connections and a deep respect between students and teachers.”

G.W. Carver — the man and the middle school — will be etched into the halls of history with a mesmerizing, multifaceted sculpture that is set to be unveiled this month in the lobby of the school, located in East Waco.

Carver first opened its doors as a La Vega ISD school in 1956. Over the years, the school served as a special education facility, a sixth-grade center and a magnet school for science and technology.

The school reopened in August after a devastating fire burned the historic school to the ground in 2021. A brand new 184,000 square-foot campus that accommodates more than 1,000 students was made possible by a bond election that was approved last November.

Kincannon said she appointed a historical advisory committee, led by Ruth Jackson, to commission a work of art that would honor the school and all those who have walked its hallways.

“The vision was to incorporate special features in the school to honor its history and the students and staff throughout the years,” Kincannon said. “The historical advisory committee expressed a strong desire to be able to visit the school and feel as if they were a part of it.”

Jackson identified a G.W. Carver graduate for every year that the school was a high school, Kincannon said. Advanced Placement students at Waco High School came up with concept drawings for two art pieces that will be placed in the lobby of the school.

Architects and designers from O’Connell Robertson, the firm that led the design of the new campus, then identified places in the school for the special pieces of art.

“The historical advisory committee came together to learn about the new middle school from our architects,” Kincannon said. “They shared their experiences as students at G.W. Carver and identified significant events and memorabilia that tell the story of the school.”

Kincannon said the committee was clear that they wanted to honor G.W. Carver and J.J. Flewellen, the only principal of Carver High School, in the new building.

George Washington Carver was an American botanist and inventor whose life’s work was dedicated to finding alternative crops to cotton and also methods to prevent soil depletion. He is considered one of the most prominent Black scientists of the early 1900s.

“I reached out to Fiona Bond at Creative Waco to discuss our ideas and get her help with finding an artist.,” incannon said. “She assisted us with the recommendation for artist Skip Ralls.”

Jayna Duke, director of design for O’Connell Robertson worked as a liaison between the historical committee and Ralls to express their hopes for what the work of art would convey.

“One of the big things that came out of that group was that Carver was so much more than just a school,” Duke said. “This was a home for them, and they wanted that to come through for the new students that were there.”

Duke said the committee wanted the teachers and the staff to see, through the art, the impact that they were making in children’s lives today.

“We’re talking 50 years later, and they wanted those teachers to be inspired by their teachers, to know they are making a difference in somebody’s life for the next 50 years,” Duke said. “What they’re doing is important and impactful. They also wanted kids to know G.W. Carver the man and what he did for us. That’s what went into the inspiration of this art piece.”

Ralls is a skilled artisan blacksmith who produces hand forged designs in steel, wrought iron, metal, bronze, brass and copper that can be found in diverse installations around the world.

“He’s able to make metal look like it’s soft and flowy and beautiful,” Duke said. “It’s incredible.”

The sculpture Kincannon and the committee envisioned is meant to be a piece that all at once is an instantly beautiful statement piece that provides a little bit of architectural division to the space.

“But the more you are able to inhabit it, find a new spot to sit and linger in it, be able to walk and move around it, you also find new things in the art piece,” Duke said. “And all of those things are stories that tell the story of G.W. Carver the school.”

Within the design, there’s a very obvious peanut plant in a very large form which is a nod to Carver, the man. Ralls intertwines the two in stunning metal work that is thought-provoking and also full of emotion.

“The roots of that growing out and up and the vines of that coming up connecting to the trellis within those vines, you’ll see band instruments,” Duke said. “That’s all speaking to when the school’s band once won the World’s Fair [in 1967].

G.W. Carver, the man himself, said if he was not going to be a botanist, he would’ve liked to have been a musician, which I think is pretty cool.”

Carver’s life work was rotating soil to keep it healthier.

“The way he did that was by encouraging people to utilize different crops, which is why he wrote so many recipes,” Duke said. “He famously wrote a lot of recipes for the peanut, so that’s where the peanut inspiration came in.”

Another way the theme of soil rotation plays out, Duke said, is that there are different seating areas within it, and students are able to find a seat that feels most comfortable to them.

“That ability to choose your own location, that autonomy to be able to care for yourself while at school and in a different setting and catering to a variety of different kinds of people,” Duke said.

“And every student’s own changing needs is the representation of that soil rotation and caring for yourself and becoming a happy, holistic person.”

Other aspects of the sculpture include the designs the of the winning AP Art students, which Ralls has integrated as mobile pieces to the main work. Salvaged wood from the original Carver gym is used to bring a piece of the physical past to today’s space. And Carver was known for wearing a rose in his lapel, so the entirety of the piece is surrounded by a rose guardrail, each flower meticulously hand forged by Ralls.

Ralls, for his part, is more about the work than the recognition. He told the Wacoan that his main objective is to help young artists develop their skills and make their own way in the art world. He and his apprentice on the Carver project have spent long hours twisting, bending and curving each piece of metal to bring the vision to life.

Charles Perkins, a committee member and former Carver High School student said his focus was that this artwork capture the theme of Mr. Carver’s original intent: “To be of the greatest good to the greatest number of ‘my people.’”

“It is paramount that this art display conveys the many great things produced from commonplace products like the peanut and sweet potato, which are microcosms of the many gains students have derived from their education at this school.”

The expression of such thoughts is why Duke thinks the Carver sculpture will speak to so many.

“I think the real synergy to the piece is that it was everybody involved,” Duke said. “It didn’t come out of the heads of the artist or the designer. It was from the community. It was from the district. It was from the local leadership on campus. Everybody was involved.”