For the past 27 years, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock has stored a fragile mural by social realist painter Joe Jones, after then-UALR archivist (and now Central Arkansas Library Director) Bobby Roberts rescued it from oblivion in 1984. Painted for Commonwealth College in Mena in 1935, "The Struggle of the South" portrays the miseries of sharecropping, a lynching and the plight of coal miners. Jones was 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. Now, the gallery director of the UALR art department wants to restore them.
Jones, who'd shown his work in New York and who as a Works Progress Administration artist had painted a mural at a Magnolia post office the previous year, 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 to draw the mural.
Commonwealth, despite being the alma mater of future Gov. 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 two weeks 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.
Jones worked at the museum from Aug. 5-19 completing the mural, approximately 44 feet long and 100 inches high and placed on three walls of what appears in photographs to be a bay window in the dining room. Commonwealth closed in 1940 and was dismantled.
Forty-four years later, Fadjo Cravens of Fort Smith contacted Roberts, told him a house in which the mural had been used as building material was about to be torn down and asked him if the archives would like to buy it. Roberts paid $500 for it sight unseen.
The mural languished in storage until 2009, when Andrew Walker, then-director of the St. Louis Art Museum, in Jones' home town, got in touch with Cushman to see if UALR indeed had the mural and if it could be used in the museum's upcoming exhibition, "Joe Jones, Painter of the American Scene," which was hung last year. But the mural wasn't in any condition to be exhibited. It had been divided into sections and used to wall a closet. 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 were missing entirely. Its condition was so delicate that students who wanted to see it were only provided photographs.
But Cushman agreed to take the mural out of storage for Walker and other museum personnel. "They were blown away," Cushman said. So blown away that they offered to restore the central section of the mural — the lynching scene — at their own cost. Cushman agreed.
That exhibition, UALR's decision to create an Institute on Race and Ethnicity and interest outside UALR on the work has prompted a determined restoration effort.
After the exhibition, Jones' grandson, Jonathan Jones, a D.C. lobbyist and friend of Sen. Mark Pryor, contacted Cushman to learn more about the mural. Jones, Mark Pryor, and Sen. David and Barbara Pryor attended an event at UALR last week to see a documentary that the university has begun to make to record the mural, its history and the restoration project. Jones saw the rest of the mural for the first time and was moved, Cushman said, calling restoration efforts a great tribute to his grandfather. He expressed the hope that the work could be placed in a common room so students would "have to look at it and think about it for the next 100 years," Cushman said.
Cushman plans to seek federal, state and private grants to pay for the restoration. Helen Houp and the St. Louis conservator Paul Hanner inspected the mural a couple of weeks ago and compared notes; Houp should have a report to UALR within a couple of weeks on what it will take to bring it back to life.
Cushman would like to see it exhibited in the manner it was hung at Commonwealth — against three walls — where it would embody lessons in art and social history and serve as a centerpiece for the university.