John Shearer: Controversial UT Mural Taken Down For Campus Construction

Wednesday, August 7, 2013 - by John Shearer

A 1950s’ mural at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville by well-known woman artist Marion Greenwood has been the subject of vocal debate over the years over such sensitive issues as racial stereotyping and freedom of artistic expression.

But in recent days, it has received only the quiet attention of a caretaking nature, as restoration workers from the Chicago-area office of EverGreene Architectural Arts have been meticulously and carefully removing the roughly 30-foot-long mural for storage.

Since 1955, it has been attached to a wall in the University Center ballroom just off Cumberland Avenue. But with the building set to be torn down in 2014 or 2015 after a new student union is built, university officials wanted to go ahead and remove the mural this summer, when fewer students and others are using the building.

The wide painting is scheduled to be stored in the university’s Ewing Gallery storage facility off Middlebrook Pike west of downtown, and possibly shown in a special exhibit in the summer of 2014 at the university’s Downtown Gallery at 106 S. Gay St. After that, its long-term residence is still to be determined, according to university officials.

Many post-1955 Chattanooga area alumni of UT may either be quite familiar with the mural or not at all, depending on whether they were in school when it was displayed, vandalized, hidden, or, of course, debated.

Late last week, three workers from EverGreene were finishing up work on the estimated $175,000 mural by removing the small sheets that had been put over it to protect the oil artwork while it was taken off the ballroom wall.

Some restorative touch-up painting was also being done, including where some damage had occurred during a 1970 act of vandalism. According to EverGreene officials, part of the damage had not been completely fixed in a previous restoration as originally thought.

The current work – which will conclude Thursday and will include putting the long canvas mural on a giant roll that will be inserted into a larger tube for protection – has gone relatively well, officials said.

“It’s been fun,” said EverGreene conservator Bryon Roesselet, adding that each art restoration project is unique. “We came up with a plan based on the previous work done on the painting, and it went pretty much according to plan. This project didn’t surprise us this much.”

The painting’s history, in contrast, has been full of unexpected twists and turns.

The mural was unveiled in June 1955 in the ballroom of the then-new University Center. The building was designed by Barber & McMurry Architects of Knoxville, who also drew the plans for Grace Episcopal Church on Brainerd Road in Chattanooga.

However, university architect Malcolm Rice reportedly thought the building needed some artwork, and that apparently set a plan in motion to bring Ms. Greenwood to Knoxville for a year as a professor/artist-in-residence during the 1954-55 school year.

According to UT associate vice chancellor emeritus and campus historian Betsey Creekmore, C. Kermit Ewing, the namesake of the gallery, was head of the art department at the time.

Whether Ms. Greenwood gained more attention that school year in Knoxville than a budding sophomore Vol football star named Johnny Majors is unlikely. However, she was still quite celebrated in larger art circles.

Ms. Greenwood, a native of Brooklyn and the younger sister of artist Grace Greenwood Ames, was 45 when she arrived at UT and had already developed quite a reputation for her Mexican government murals, her World War II Army paintings, and her work for the Works Progress Administration. She had also done a mural for the Crossville, Tenn., post office in 1940, although she never saw it installed.

Her UT mural depicts the musical heritage and folk traditions of Tennessee. According to some information in a 1955 UT alumni magazine – an online version of which was provided by UT library information specialist and Chattanooga High alumna Martha Rudolph -- Ms. Greenwood had traveled the state to get ideas for the piece of art.

The long painting features 27 people – one of whom is barely visible. It is contiguous physically but appears to be broken into four sections thematically. It was also done in a way that somewhat mirrors what one would find historically moving from West to East Tennessee.

On the left sub-scene are eight black people, giving the painting a segregated look perhaps reflective of Tennessee in the mid-1950s. Four of the people are Beale Street-style blues or jazz musicians, while two others are dancing to the music. But it is the painting of one of the other two black people that has resulted in the biggest source of controversy.

An adult black male – who is a sharecropper, common farmer or possibly even a slave – is shown picking cotton with a particular look on his face that some believe perpetuates a stereotype of a happy or simple-minded black man contently doing menial work.

It was that face that resulted in some protests by blacks and possibly others beginning in the late 1960s and led to the mural being permanently covered up in 1972 after some vandalism was done to it in May 1970.

Ms. Greenwood, who died in Woodstock, N.Y., at the age of 61 only three months after the vandalism, was evidently a fan of common people, and she liked to feature them in her paintings. And at least with the cotton picker and many of the non-musician or non-dancing characters in her UT mural, they all seem to be thinking. But the thoughts are not clear and seem to be up to the individual viewer to interpret.

Giving a viewer an additional thought to ponder in discerning this part of the painting is that a small black girl seems to be respectfully paying attention to the sharecropper, although she is apparently not looking directly at him.

The four other mural sub-scenes, from left, are of some people playing and enjoying the traditional early country music later popularized by the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, of three crafts artisans making or cleaning essential items, and of some people singing at an outdoor church service apparently in the mountains of East Tennessee.

The church scene shows the male pastor as the obvious authority figure, a depiction typical of gender roles in and out of the church decades ago but not necessarily true today in every setting.

Sam Yates of the UT Ewing Gallery said the painting may be controversial, but it is Ms. Greenwood’s depiction of history – including perhaps the not-always-pleasant past history regarding the plight of blacks.

“There’s always some part of history that people wish would go away,” he said, adding that people will likely read into the mural what they want to read into it.

Marc Plate of Woodstock, N.Y., whose uncle, Robert Plate, married Ms. Greenwood and was her biographer, said Ms. Greenwood was not an artist who would have derided black people or others.

“She was very proletarian,” he said. “She was not prejudiced by any means. She painted people very beautifully.”

Due to his connection to his late uncle, Mr. Plate has archived, sold and donated some of Ms. Greenwood’s work over the years. In fact, he sold a sketching of the UT mural, not realizing until later that he could have charged a higher price if he had known beforehand what it was.

He also said a mural she did in Red Hook, N.Y., has also had some controversy over the years and was covered, but that may be the only other one.

While Ms. Greenwood was known for her people on canvas or walls, her biggest contribution may have been in her dealings with people on Earth. And that is despite the fact that she was the first woman artist accepted in Mexico with the noted Diego Rivera and that she perfected a method of painting on fresco.

Mr. Plate said Ms. Greenwood was outgoing and, as a result, knew countless people and helped connect many of them. As an example of the latter, she introduced dance company head Martha Graham to Isamu Noguchi, who would go on to design her sets, he said.

“She was known as a very flamboyant, direct-spoken woman and she involved herself with many of the artists of the day,” he said.

In contrast, her UT mural has been quietly out of sight like a hermit for most of its 58 years.

After it was covered behind paneling in 1972, it was not seen by the public again for 34 years. But student Eric Harkness became aware of the mural through professor Tim Ezell, and Mr. Harkness started a move to have it displayed. With the coordination of two campus committees, it was opened for public display briefly in March 2006.

Numerous students and others stopped by to see it then, and they had opportunities to write down their thoughts on comment books that were there.

After that event, it was covered with Plexiglass and curtains, although it has been viewed by classes or during other special gatherings since then.

For Chattanoogans who hang around the University Center on Vol football game days, the mural is in the room where the special Pregame Showcase academic lecture is held prior to kickoff.

University Center director Jim Dittrich said that when the upcoming demolition of the current UC was being finalized, a committee was formed to look at what to do with it and the other center artwork. After some discussion, a recommendation was made that the mural be restored for $69,900 and moved.

As a result, it now seems to have a brighter future, as has been the case for the black man in Tennessee since the era depicted in the painting.

“We recognize it as a piece of art,” said UT spokesperson Amy Blakely of the painting. “There’s really no place on campus to display something this large, but we are hoping it can have a permanent home.”

Jcshearer2@comcast.net


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