LAWRENCE — An installation inspired by a phrase deeply familiar to University of Kansas alumni and fans across the region — “Rock Chalk Jayhawk KU” — is set to be permanently displayed on Mount Oread, diving deep into the origins of the local traditions.
“It all began with being interested in the origin stories of those four iconic keywords,” explained Kansas City artist Megh Knappenberger. “I wanted to explore really deeply into the beginning of KU.”
The installation — titled “Origin Stories” — is composed of 11 paintings shown throughout three rooms in the Jayhawk Welcome Center. The works are set to be unveiled Saturday morning before KU’s homecoming football game.
“When you walk through the new Jayhawk Welcome Center, it is designed to show you what life would be like if you were a student, what your future might look like,” she noted. “It walks you through the traditions at KU and it’s really interactive.”
“Because that’s so forward-looking and so much about being a student at present time, I was really curious to dive in kind of the opposite direction, all the way back to the first years of KU and where all of the details in those traditions came from,” she added.
Knappenberger — one of the only artists ever granted license to depict the KU Jayhawk — said this project is meaningful to her — not only because she’s an alum — but also because the subject is personally interesting to her.
“Spending time doing this work — building these multi-piece collections around a common thread and just diving really deeply into the research — is what I’m really good at,” she continued. “And being able to do all of that on campus at my alma mater — getting to do the research with KU professors, being in the Spencer research library — the whole way that it revolved around KU and incorporated people there, and then now lives on campus is really, really special.”
The collection — which took Knappenberger seven months to complete — revolves around three origin stories — Jayhawk, Mount Oread, and Rock Chalk — she shared, and each origin story will be on display in a different room in the welcome center.
The Jayhawk origin story dives into the birds that inspired the mythological mascot, she continued. She originally planned to paint the jay bird and hawk that inspired the name, but her plan changed while doing her research.
“I found that that story is complicated,” she explained. “It’s not really clear which type of hawk inspired the Jayhawk and who originally coined the term. There are a lot of different stories over time. So I shifted my plan and painted a blue jay — which is pretty consistently shown as the bird that is the jay in Jayhawk — and then four other birds to represent the different options for hawk and also to tell four stories over time, which start in 1849 and go through to the 1920s. It’s really cool how they connect to different times in history.”
Most people associate the word Jayhawk with the Civil War and Jayhawkers, she noted.
“That is definitely one of the birds, but there’s a lot of stories,” she added. “I think it is really interesting to look at them and then to debate and say, ‘Which one do you think it is?’ So I like that there is an open question in that room.”
The Mount Oread origin paintings explore the early days of life on the campus of KU through native flora and fauna, according to Knappenberger. Through her research, she found that the first student newspaper on campus was called “The Observer of Nature” and each student was required to collect and prepare an herbarium.
“It just got me interested in that idea of students sharing stories about their natural collections and about how different campus was at that time and how different it looked then,” she explained. “That inspired me to do a bit of collecting on my own, kind of a modern day collection.”
In both the spring and the fall, she collected walnuts from Marvin Grove on campus and used them for ink, she noted.
“That was a wash in the background of each of the four pieces in that room,” she added. “So it forms the natural foundation of those pieces.”
Click here to read about Knappenberger’s innovative use of another unique medium.
Knappenberger said the Rock Chalk origin paintings are based on geological maps of Kansas.
“Rock Chalk is about limestone,” she noted. “And those pieces are celebrating that geological history. As I like to say, ‘The school that made geology cool.’”
Although the collection will be housed in the Jayhawk Welcome Center, which is adjacent to the Adams Alumni Center, and will be seen by many prospective students and alumni, Knappenberger said the installation is for everyone.
“I designed it to tell a story,” she explained. “So that whether somebody walks past the room and just says like, ‘Oh, that’s cool; a bird,’ or somebody is really curious about the history and knows what types of moths are indigenous to Mount Oread, that the more somebody leans in to the piece, the more it opens its arms up and pulls them in. There’s something for everybody and it’s meant to work on many different levels.”