Mercer alumna’s dreams come true as she receives art degree withheld for 50 years


Image: Ashley Pemberton

Artist and former Mercer University student, Gwendolyn Payton, presented her art exhibit “The Faith of the Dreamer” at the Plunkett Art Gallery Sept. 25.

Artist and Mercer University alumna Gwendolyn Payton, presented her art exhibit “The Faith of the Dreamer” at the Plunkett Art Gallery Sept. 25. The exhibit features works from Payton’s college days as well as more recent art pieces.

Payton set out to achieve her art degree at Mercer University nearly 50 years ago. She completed all of her courses; however, the university did not allow her to exhibit her senior art show because of the racial tension present in the art department at the time. 

Now, almost half a century later, Payton’s work is on display at the Plunkett art gallery in Hardeman Hall for all to see as part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ racial reparations for her inability to showcase her art in the past.

Payton’s work covers the expansive Plunkett Gallery walls from left to right, each piece a striking composition of bold colors, expressive faces and bright images. Walking into the Plunkett Gallery, there is a portrait of a woman painted in 2013. Adjacent to the painting is a smaller one, the paint slightly chipped and fading in color. The smaller piece is from her college days and was painted in 1971. There is an evident contrast between her pristine, recent art pieces and her older work, accentuating her journey from one canvas to the next, and their dual display closes the gap in her art expedition almost 50 years later.

Payton’s work is on display at the Plunkett art gallery for all to see. (Image: Ashley Pemberton)

Payton emphasized that her journey to getting her degree has been a long one and described that now is as fitting a time as ever for her to receive her recognition. At her artist talk, Payton recalled how a novel, “The Stem of Jesse” by Will D. Campbell, shares a significant part of Mercer’s history as well as her own. The novel notes many African American students of the 1966 cohort and sheds light of the success those students eventually garnered in their respective careers.

“I just want to encourage everyone to learn your own history, to learn the history of your family, the history of your country. One of the things that this book has in it are the people that were here at Mercer when I came to Mercer,” Payton said. “It notes many of them, African Americans, and as I remember it was only 56 African Americans students in a campus of about 5,000 at the time.”

Mercer awarded Payton her art degree at her artist talk, righting the wrong her department head committed long ago, and giving her due respect for the culmination of art she curated during her time at Mercer.

Payton’s exhibit serves as due reparations for her work as a talented artist and encompasses her revolutionary story as a figurehead in enduring and enacting change through her art. Her exhibit will be on display in the Plunkett Gallery until Oct. 16.