‘Way Down East’ way up in storage

“Way Down East,” a sculpture by artist Red Grooms, doesn’t currently have a place on Northern Kentucky University’s campus. Instead, it’s tucked away in a maintenance building, disassembled, crated and shelved.

“It’s being left in the warehouse stored up high so that somebody doesn’t run a forklift through it,” said Larry Blake, assistant vice president of Facilities Management.

The controversial pop art construction, which depicts a scene from native Kentuckian D.W. Griffith’s 1920 film “Way Down East,” has been a center of debate at NKU since its installation in 1979.

The sculpture is based on the melodrama “Way Down East,” However, Griffith’s Civil War drama, “The Birth of a Nation,” is the cause for concern. One of his earlier films, it is considered to be a racist representation of blacks, with scenes depicting them as rapists and committing violent acts.

“It’s a powerful indictment, a big hole in his professional career without a doubt,” said Thomas McGovern, chair of the Fine Arts Department.

The sculpture, which used to sit between the Fine Arts Building and the University Center, was taken down in 1998 and moved to a new location outside of the lower exit of the Fine Arts Building. When the construction began on the new lake in 2004, it was disassembled and placed in storage.

“I’m assuming it will at some point come back,” McGovern said. The university previously managed the debate over the art piece by holding public forums and giving students and faculty a chance to voice concerns about the issue, according to McGovern.

“I would assume that there will be more discourse. There is always going to be disagreement on how to receive that particular work,” McGovern said. The artwork currently has no tentative schedule for a return to campus, but eventually “Way Down East” is expected to be restored.

Blake agreed that it will return, but when is the real issue. “We really haven’t determined a site yet,” Blake said. Until things quiet down, it’s not been a high priority for Facilities Management while most of the campus is under construction.

When NKU administrators were initially choosing the sculpture, one stipulation was that its subject be a native Kentuckian. “Way Down East” is Grooms’ tribute to Griffith, who was born in rural Kentucky in 1875.

The painted aluminum sculpture, which gave a splash of color to NKU’s concrete d