The University of Arkansas at Little Rock has taken care of a mural by social realist painter Joe Jones since 1984, when then-UALR archivist (and now Central Arkansas Library Director) Bobby Roberts rescued it from oblivion. (See this Eye Candy post from last year.) Its subject matter: the miseries of sharecropping, our terrible history of lynching and the plight of coal miners. Its artist: A Missourian who said “I’m not interested in painting pretty pictures to match pink and blue walls. I want to paint things that knock holes in walls.”
Ironically, Jones' mural was turned into walls, with holes knocked in them, for a house in Fort Smith.
Jones, a painter for the Works Progress Administration who had painted a mural at a Magnolia post office in 1934 and exhibited at a gallery in New York, was commissioned by Commonwealth College in 1935 to paint the mural. The college scraped together $50 for the project, and according to some reports, Jones had to make his own charcoal, by burning wood, to draw the mural.
Commonwealth, despite being the alma mater of Orval Faubus, was created in the 1920s to train organizers for the workers movement and make other social reforms. In the Aug. 1, 1935, issue of its twice-monthly newsletter, the Fortnightly, the college announced Jones would lecture on “proletarian art and culture” during the time he would be at the college. “It was his students who painted the murals on the walls of old St. Louis courthouse and fought the efforts of the indignant property owners to demolish them,” the paper reported. Commonwealth closed in 1940.
In 2009, the St. Louis Art Museum, working on its 2010 exhibition "Joe Jones, Painter of the American Scene," got in touch with Cushman to see if UALR indeed had the mural and if it could be used in the exhibition. But the mural — which Roberts, aware of its value, bought sight unseen for $500 from Fadjo Cravens in Fort Smith — wasn't in any condition to be exhibited. The mural, painted on masonite, had been divided into sections for use as building material. Part of it was covered with wallpaper. Other sections had been hung with the image facing the studs, and large bits of the paint had flaked off. Some parts are missing entirely. Its condition was so fragile that students who wanted to see it were only provided photographs.
But Cushman agreed to take the mural out of storage for then-director Andrew Walker of the St. Louis Museum and others. "They were blown away," Cushman said. So blown away that they offered to restore a portion of the mural — the lynching scene in its midsection. Cushman agreed.
Now, Cushman would like the entire mural — which he estimated at 44 feet long and about 100 inches high — to be restored and exhibited in the manner it was originally, along three walls punctuated by windows. He would like it to find a home in UALR's new Institute on Race and Ethnicity. Spurring him on is interest by the artist's grandson, Jonathan Jones, a D.C. lobbyist and friend of Sen. David Pryor who contacted Cushman after the St. Louis exhibition. Two weeks ago, a conservator from Dallas came to Little Rock to study the mural and is preparing a report on just what it will take to bring it back to life. Cushman and others plan to seek grants from federal, state and private sources to get the job done.
Tonight, UALR's Art Department and the office of development are hosting a by-invitation event to tell the story of the mural and show video that UALR has shot since discussion with St. Louis started in 2009. Its value to history and art is huge and its restoration would do UALR, and its study on the social history of Arkansas, proud.