Chester Martin Remembers A Tale Of 5 Murals

Tuesday, August 2, 2016
Original art for five murals by Chester Martin
Original art for five murals by Chester Martin

It seems like centuries ago that I wanted to be a mural painter. Murals were rare at that time - at least here in the southeastern U.S. I admired all the ones I could find in books, and liked the work of Thomas Hart Benton especially. He had done one for the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri, which I admired, and was working on one for the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville which he barely finished before he died.

Maxfield Parrish, the Philadelphia artist and illustrator, had also done one in Tiffany glass which I admired, and finally got to see at the old Curtis Publications building (Saturday Evening Post), in Philly.

But back in the 1970's I was looking for new ways to interest people in my artwork. I started working for architects of the city, doing color renderings of their proposed new buildings which they could show to prospective clients and hopefully get new work for themselves. A local building contractor, Wynston Bland, "discovered" me through my renderings , and we shared a lot of the same artistic interests. He put me to work on a very long, narrow mural for his American National Bank and Trust Company (now SunTrust), which was/is located on Lee Highway at Shallowford Road. We agreed that the theme of it should relate to Chattanooga - and I made it into a kind of pictorial history of our city from early times until the Victorian era - with just a hint of the modern age by inclusion of the bank's emblem or logo at the right side. I painted it "in place" on canvas that Mr. Bland installed for me above what would be the tellers’ cages. I did my painting after the building workmen left at 4:30, and had access to the building all weekends. This mural was Mr. Bland's own idea...a gift of appreciation to the bank, paying me for it out of his own pocket. It was his idea, but I was given total artistic freedom to interpret Chattanooga history in my own way. He also hired a local ceramicist to develop some really beautiful tile with which he decorated the facade of the building. Both the ceramics lady and I were left alone to create our own designs independently. She set up a trailer with studio and kiln at Bland’s office and I worked from both my home studio and on-site.. He followed the lady’s work and mine very closely,as if he were trying to learn something from us.

This new branch opened without fanfare, and there was no effort either to focus attention on the ceramicist's work, or on mine. Both were for decoration only. I cannot say that I ever got a single phone-call or inquiry about the work, but I do know that people looked at it and commented on it, because Jed Mescon once did a short feature about it on Channel 3. Seems that people were noticing the central figure's eyes which followed them as they walked past. THAT is a very common phenomenon that people have noted regarding murals for centuries, but I was flattered that people were at least noticing my work - and that Mescon had done the story about it.

The interesting ceramic work was first to go when the building was enlarged years later, and my mural survived until within the last 10 years. I have no idea whether it was preserved in some way or went to the scrap-heap of history!

Another project of the 1970's was in the form of a small competition. Five local artists were asked by Fowler Brothers (the leading furniture and Interior Design business in town) to submit designs for a mural for the Mountain City Club of Chattanooga. That club had been housed in a very old and shabby-appearing downtown building for many years and was due for a brand new and more elegant space. A major local architect designed the building and Fowlers was chosen to do all the decorating. Fowlers had worked everything out except the large space - 8 feet tall, and 30 feet long - which was left open for the mural. All five of the selected artist-candidates were called in individually to see what Fowlers had decided on for the color scheme. The mural had to blend with that pre-determined scheme, but the pictorial content was left entirely up to each artist. Again, I chose an interpretation of the history of Chattanooga, as the Club members were all local businessmen and industrialists. In my design I did about the same thing as in the bank mural, (above), using some of the same elements although treated in a very different way. One stipulation by Fowlers for the new mural was that it was "not to be accented" (i.e., with special lighting), and was to remain just a long, but decorated, expanse of wall. Fact is that it could not help but dominate, as it was the central feature of the main "living room" area where the men sat and gossiped while puffing their Dutch Masters cigars and reading their Wall Street Journals.

I matched all the colors that Fowlers gave me and was able to use them all successfully in the painting. I also needed models for the few figures that were shown. The two Victorian ladies on the right side were purely original and imaginary creations, as was the “coonskin cap” backwoodsman on the left. The central figure, however – the Cannoneer – was based on a real person. He was a young art student from several doors away from me – one Mike Connally. Mike and his brother, Krich, loved to do short skits based on comic characters from the early black and white movies (Laurel and Hardy, to be sure!) – and Mike could create authentic looking costumes out of thin air. Mike therefore “became” the cannoneer for my mural by posing while I took a few Polaroid shots of him. Mike was gifted in many art and theater-related matters, and did such beautiful pastel portrait sketches that he was hired by Channel 3 to do all their courtroom drawings. Mike, however, tragically drowned in the Tennessee River near his Bluff View apartment, still only in his early twenties. Channel 3 and the entire city lamented his passing, and UTC granted him a posthumous showing of his work in their new art gallery.

The Mountain City Club mural was painted on several 8’ x 4’ sheets of Masonite, IN MY LIVING ROOM! My ceilings were barely 8’ tall, and the Masonite was just floppy enough that I had to devise an easel so that three panels could be secured together in perfect alignment for painting at the same time. When all the panels were finished, the work had to be “approved”, of course, and I could not display it in its entirety from inside the house, so I therefore had to set it up outside – against the west wall. The neighbors must have been startled to see a parade of black Cadillacs come down the hill and park in front of my house – and with such personages as Tommy Lupton getting out to do the inspecting! The entire committee – all from Lookout Mountain – gave me high praise and approved the work! *Sigh* Oh what a relief it was when they went away happy! Fortunately, I did not have to transport it to its new home, as it was graciously picked up and installed in the new building by a crew that was furnished by the architect – a crew who were highly skilled in fitting panels together. It was amazing the fine trimming they had to do to obtain such a perfect fit of one sheet to the next. I was very relieved – and very pleased – to see it finally hanging in place.

But, alas! Just as the older architects of every city have seen their “first” building demolished years later, so the muralist sees his earlier work bite the dust! Twenty-odd years later the Mountain City Club needed a total re-decoration, and my mural was taken down. No one thought of calling the artist (me) to tell him about it, they simply took it down and were about to scrap it. I am eternally grateful to Mr. Glenn Showalter of Blue Cross/Blue Shield (AND the Signal Mountain Playhouse) for “saving” it (without my knowledge), and storing it for years in the Blue Cross (old Miller Brothers) building downtown. In the late 1990’s it was re-discovered and publicized on Channel 9, offering it to anyone who would be able to display it. As a result, the Chattanooga airport got it and installed it in a new and special room which was supposed to impress visitors with samplings of Chattanooga’s goods and services. It fit perfectly onto a diagonal wall, and I was very happy about its new venue. It hung there only a short period of time until the dreaded 9-11 event occurred in NYC, and the new room was needed for Airport Security. I believe Security created a new wall to cover it up, but I also believe it is still there. Don’t know, and may never know, as I can no longer walk to snoop around! It has possibly had some additions or modifications done to it by someone other than me…

Mural Number Three was for Chattem, Inc. It was the brain-child of a Chattem Director from Texas who had seen some large, colorful murals and thought that Chattem’s new office building – hidden away on the side of Lookout Mountain – could benefit from such a work in their lobby. (He was right, of course!) And so I was selected to do it as a direct commission, without competing. I was most flattered. But when the design work got underway, CEO Alex Guerry had a few restrictions: I was not to show any people – not even the founders of the company. No one. I felt that at least one or two chemists should be shown at work in their lab, but I proceeded. Without some people to humanize it, I thought, it would have an empty, vapid look – and it did!  It took many conferences with Mr. Guerry to work out all the details and what should – or should not be shown – as they seemingly had hundreds of products. Especially troublesome were those long strings of formulae which were to be included, and  which denoted the very life-blood of the company: those for Rolaids and Bufferin, which Dr. Irvine Grote had so meticulously worked out years before. THIS painting was even taller than the last. TEN feet, and I had no idea how I could do it at home. It was Mr. GEORGE LITTLE of the Little Art Shop who rescued me from that dilemma, as he had some upstairs space with 10 foot ceilings where I would be welcome to work. He had sold me the canvas and we had discussed my new project, so was very helpful, and I will always be grateful to George for helping a fellow artist in need!

Mural Four was originally done for the brand new and very cool Cosmopolitan Health Spa on Brainerd Road; their interior decoration was all to be “Greco-Roman”. There were countless very expensive details that Nashville owner, Seth Smith, was incorporating into the building – such as an oblong dome above the large indoor pool. In a corner beside the pool there was to be a whirlpool bath located beneath a curving wall which needed to be decorated! A friend, Paul Shelton, tipped me off to this fact, and I was soon linked up with Mr. Smith. I created the new mural to fit a definite space and submitted it to Smith. He heartily approved, and was one of the easiest clients to work with that I ever knew. My design included either Greek or Roman soldiers – one on horseback – throwing spears, etc. Smith loved it, so I painted it in Chattanooga, and, as his empire grew, I was sent to paint the same exact mural in every new location throughout the south! Fortunately, I had made a “pounce pattern” of the original Brainerd Road design – a minor art I had learned while at Kirkman Vocational HS many years before – and while working summers at Charles Regan’s sign shop. All I had to do in the distant locations was to unroll my pattern, tape it to the wall, dust a mixture of charcoal and talcum powder through the perforations and *poof* I had my drawing – exactly positioned – transferred to the wall, ready for paint.

Mural Number Five was a total failure. I was to “compete” with another local artist to do a mural for a northern Georgia bank. Only thing they specified was that all the Board of Directors should be depicted – a sizable crowd – the idea of which did not appeal to me at all. But the fact that it would provide an excuse to show the John Ross house and Lookout Mountain together in the background was sufficient to inspire me. I worked on the design for DAYS, trying to fit all the people into the layout, and made a full-color rendering at the scale of one inch to the foot. I even made an accurate cardboard model of the John Ross house to help me get the desired perspective. D-Day arrived when we were supposed to -present our designs and I was called into the conference room first. Ten minutes later I was done – and the other competitor went in. I just went home – and waited for an hour or more, expecting the possible phone-call. It didn’t come. Then I decided to call the bank and ask for the man behind the competition – and he was “still in conference” with the other artist. The “other” artist did indeed get the job and I heard no more from the bank. About a year later I wondered how the new mural was coming along and went in to see what might have been done. Nothing! Someone told me that the other artist had not been able to do the job and there was no mural. I always felt that that “competition” was rigged from the start. I do not mind losing when the competitions are honest, but it can be hurtful when you realize you were just a pawn in the rigging, All those events are over 30 years old, so, except for this writing, I do not even think about it anymore. Architects and building contractors get their proposals rejected all the time, so it should be no different for artists!

For all the effort I put into my mural work, I can honestly say that I never received ONE phone-call or inquiry about a single one of them. I get far more attention, and have as much fun, from doing these articles for John Wilson’s “chattanoogan dot com”, so think I will just keep on writing! Maybe I’ve finally found my true calling!

I DO want to thank GEORGE LITTLE and PAUL SHELTON for helping me along the mural route! GLENN SHOWALTER was also an angel for just thinking about Preservation! And the CHATTANOOGA LIBRARY was second to NO other library!

Now, kindly forgive me for the really poor-quality picture posted at the top. The “dud” mural is at right center, and I think you can figure out which is which if so interested. And please note that “my” sequence of numbering in the article  does not match the position of the artwork in the picture.




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