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The Big Picture

Preservationists work to restore the reputation of William Edouard Scott, one of the preeminent African-American painters of the 20th century.



Six years ago, Barry Bauman and his colleague Margaret Nowosielska pulled up in front of the YMCA on South Wabash, a gloomy five-story redbrick building with boarded-up windows. Mark Marshall, a YMCA development consultant, greeted them outside, then tussled with the rusty padlock and chain that secured the wooden doors. Turning on flashlights, they walked into the pitch-black building.

In the YMCA's ballroom, where the floor was covered with dirt and broken cement, they trained the flashlights on a faded and cracked 30-by-9-foot mural by William Edouard Scott, the most successful African-American artist of the early 20th century. Bauman could make out a nurse helping a man on crutches, a male quartet in tuxedos, a chemist pouring fluid into a vial, a couple in athletic attire, and a tall man carrying a torch--African-Americans in the 1930s portraying the YMCA mission of building mind, body, and spirit.

Bauman, a conservator for more than 20 years, says that despite the layers of dirt and grime, he was spellbound. He knew Scott's work well, having restored several of his portraits in private collections, a painting for the DuSable Museum of African American History, and another Chicago mural. And he knew this mural was a rarity. But he wondered how the owners would ever find the money to restore the building, let alone the mural.

William Edward Scott--he later changed his middle name to Edouard--was born on March 11, 1884, in Indianapolis, one of two children in a working-class family. His father, Edward Miles Scott, was a laborer, his mother, Caroline Russell Scott, a homemaker.

Unlike most other African-American children, Scott attended an elementary school for whites. "If a black family lived near a white school or there were two black families, they could go to the local white school," explains William Taylor, who teaches at Indiana University and curated an exhibit on Scott at the Terra Museum of American Art in 1996. "But if there was a concentration of blacks, they had to go to the nearest black school."

Scott went on to attend Manual High School, an integrated school where his art teacher, Otto Stark, who was white, took him under his wing. A well-established artist, Stark also taught at the fledgling Herron School of Art, and he encouraged Scott to take classes there on weekends. Stark eventually suggested that he attend the Art Institute, and Scott enrolled there in 1904. Though his mother encouraged Scott, he told the Indianapolis Star in 1911 that his father "thought I had lost my reason from too much book study and treated me like one demented."

It was still unusual for an African-American to attend the Art Institute, and Scott supported himself with scholarships and with jobs such as sweeping classroom floors and waiting tables. His teachers immediately recognized his talent; John Vanderpoole looked at Scott's portfolio and admitted him to his life-drawing class, which was usually reserved for seniors.

Scott graduated in 1909, and not long after that, when he was only about 25, he painted his first notable mural, a dramatic depiction of Chicago as a center of commerce, with shipping docks and railroads. The mural, which is at Lane Tech and was restored by Bauman in 1995, is extraordinary because Scott painted it freehand. "With mural painting you have to have a different mind-set of painting large," says Taylor. "The technique was to do to-scale sketches with images on large pieces of brown paper, punch holes, and use chalk to mark the holes onto the canvas. From what I gather, Scott got up and drew on his canvas and painted."

Scott then went to France, where he hoped to improve his craft. In Paris he met Henry O. Tanner, a preeminent expatriate African-American artist who'd been included in the Great Salon Exhibition and had studied with the impressionists. He invited Scott to his summer home in Normandy, and Scott became one of only two artists to study with him. "You'll read in various articles that so-and-so studied with Tanner," says Taylor. "Well, it may have been a day of evaluation or something. Scott studied with Tanner for months. William Harper, another Art Institute of Chicago student, also studied with Tanner. They must have exhibited some special ability to gain this privilege."

Scott got his share of attention in France, not only because he was talented, but because he was physically striking. At about six feet, he towered over most Parisians, and he wore a goatee and a beret. The Parisians considered him exotic, and that opened doors everywhere. "There was freedom, no restrictions, no segregation," says Taylor. "The only restriction was a language barrier. He went to a restaurant, and he wanted pork chops. He ended up drawing a picture for the waiter, but ended up getting horse meat."

Scott ran out of money in 1911, and he reluctantly returned to Chicago, which he considered home. "His family gave him a hard time about his new middle name," says Taylor. "It was just guys being guys--it was all in great fun. I would imagine there was a little jealousy about him going over. He was very successful in a foreign land, and there was a little notoriety in coming back."

Four years later Scott went to Tuskegee, Alabama, as a guest of Booker T. Washington and spent several months painting day-in-the-life pictures of the locals, something he would continue to do throughout his life. He wasn't afraid to show the extreme poverty most African-Americans lived in at the time--one powerful painting shows a woman standing dejected in front of a shack. Taylor says these paintings were among the first images of the black experience painted by an African-American artist.

Scott had many firsts as one of only a few African-Americans able to make a living as artists during the early 20th century. He was the only African-American in a group of artists commissioned to decorate an Indianapolis hospital. He was also the first African-American to exhibit at the Hoosier Salon exhibitions in Chicago, which had been started by local Indianans to show the best art generated by Indiana natives.

In 1928 he was recognized by the Harmon Foundation, which had been formed in 1922 by white New York philanthropist William Harmon to honor individuals in various fields. In 1926 it added a new category: "Distinguished Achievement Among Negroes." Scott, receiving recognition for his work in the field of fine art, was given a gold medal but, unlike the other winners, no cash prize. He was furious. "I hope you will not consider me ungrateful," he wrote in a letter to the foundation, "but I am truly at a loss to understand the point. If it is because I have apparently made money at mural painting, let me tell you, confidentially, the positive truth: I painted 11 portraits (30" x 40") for 35 dollars each last year and have been compelled to paint signs and campaign banners to keep body and soul together between mural decoration commissions." The foundation committee didn't give him any money, but it never again awarded a medal without a cash prize.

The honor boosted Scott's profile. The foundation helped launch the Harlem Renaissance, which consisted largely of artists it recognized during the 1920s. Chicago artists Archibald Motley, Hale Woodruff, and John Wesley Hardrick were among those honored. Most of the younger artists, who were in their 20s and 30s, were more daring in their work than Scott, then 43, who would stick to the traditional style he'd developed for the rest of his life.

Scott had married in 1918, when he was 34. He and his social worker wife, Esther Elaine Fulks, were quite different. He was a bit of a loner and liked to explore the city's ethnic enclaves and collect antiques. She loved inviting friends over for bridge parties. He liked to join her social activities on his own terms, often cooking for the parties. "He was a person who got up early in the morning--four o'clock--to do his painting," says the couple's only child, Joan Scott Wallace, a social psychology professor in Florida. "He couldn't stay up late at night. That's where they were very different. But he didn't hurry up and go to bed. He was busy with a lot of different things."

Joan was born in 1931, and three months later her father was given a grant by Sears, Roebuck, and Company executive Julius Rosenwald that allowed him to go to Haiti. His wife and daughter lived in West Virginia with relatives while he spent a year painting scenes that portrayed vendors in the market, cockfights, and a barefoot mother carrying her shoes and child to church.

When Scott returned to Chicago he did several murals, some of them commissioned by the WPA. "Scott was one of the most powerful painters from that era," says Heather Becker, a mural historian and vice president of the Chicago Conservation Center. "He combined talent with social and cultural agendas. That's hard to do. An artist might have the talent but not the right subject matter or vice versa."

Scott also always had private commissions, which was rare in the Depression, even for white painters. "He always had money," says Harriet Warkel, a curator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art who helped shape the 1996 exhibit at the Terra. "He always was pretty much accepted." Scott was proud that he didn't have to teach part-time as so many other artists did, though as a consequence the Scotts lived a modest life. "We didn't have a lot of money, but I never knew it," says Wallace. "I had everything. My mother saw to it that I could go to the theater, even though we could only afford seats on the balcony."

Scott painted the mural at the Wabash YMCA in 1936, though it's not clear who commissioned it because the Y doesn't have a record. Becker says it's not on the list of local WPA works, so it wasn't funded by the government. Perhaps it was commissioned by the YMCA, which had hired him to do an oil-on-canvas mural for the 135th Street YMCA in New York City--a work that's also now deteriorating.

The Wabash YMCA, located at 3763 S. Wabash, in Bronzeville, was built in 1913 as one of the nation's first YMCAs for African-Americans. It was cutting edge when it was constructed, with 114 rooms, many of them reserved for job training in everything from architectural draftsmanship to auto mechanics. There were also dining facilities, billiard and reading rooms, a ballroom, a swimming pool, showers, and a gymnasium. Many of the African-Americans who migrated from the south to find factory jobs during World War I stayed there. Booker T. Washington spoke there. The Savoy Big Five, later known as the Harlem Globetrotters, trained in the gym.

Scott must have been doing well the year he painted the mural, because he never returned to apply a coat of varnish to protect the paint. He continued to travel for his work but always returned to Chicago, and in 1940 he bought a three-flat at 6430 S. Eberhart. Around the same time he was commissioned to do murals for the "American Negro Exhibition: Celebrating 75 Years of Negro Achievement" at the Chicago Coliseum. Working 16-hour days, he produced 24 murals in three months. They depicted important African-American events, including Marian Anderson singing the "Star-Spangled Banner" at the Lincoln Memorial and the Frederick Douglass-Stephen Douglas debate. Apparently none of these works still exists.

Scott's last and best-known WPA mural was done in 1944 for the recorder of deeds building in Washington, D.C. A contest was held to create seven murals and was open to all American artists. Competition was stiff--the committee received 360 entries, including ones from leading African-American artists such as Charles H. Alston, Aaron Douglas, James A. Porter, and Hale Woodruff. The jury had no way of knowing any artist's race, and of the seven winners, Scott was the only African-American. His mural depicted Frederick Douglass appealing to President Lincoln to enlist black soldiers in the Civil War, and it still hangs in the recorder of deeds building. Scott was paid $650, and the committee liked his work so much that they hired him to do a painting of the dedication ceremony for the same building, for which he was paid $500. That work, which shows President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressing his cabinet, is still in the building.

During his final years Scott found his work less in demand--surrealism, realism, and cubism had become the popular styles. He concentrated on doing portraits, and he taught. In 1955 he traveled to Mexico, where he became sick and learned that he had diabetes. He came back home, and when he was 73 doctors had to amputate one leg. He continued to paint, but his diabetes became worse and his other leg had to be amputated. Scott died in 1964, at the age of 80.

The Wabash YMCA ended its programs in 1969, after the much bigger Washington Park Y was built. It reopened briefly in the 70s, but was shuttered again in 1981, when it was bought by Saint Thomas Episcopal Church. The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, but it was still almost torn down in 1994. Then in 1997 Saint Thomas and a group of area churches pooled their funds and began the long process of rehabbing the building, restoring part of it as a Y and turning the rest of it into a single-room-occupancy hotel; all of the rooms are now filled, most of them by formerly homeless men. Each room was given a kitchenette and a bath, and the rooms once used for job training became a community center, a fitness center, and a day-care center.

The ballroom was turned into an after-school activity room, and it got a new maple floor and a new coat of paint. Scott's mural looked shabby in the rehabbed surroundings. Leaking pipes had caused the plaster to lift, pulling the paint with it. On the mural's right side the paint was entirely gone. Donations from YMCA alumni and funds from the Lohengrin Foundation, a private family foundation based in Chicago, provided the money to restore it, and Bauman and Nowosielska, who'd restored several other Scott murals in schools and field houses around Chicago, were hired for the job.

Unlike most of Scott's murals, which were painted on canvas, the Wabash YMCA mural was painted directly onto dry plaster. Bauman and Nowosielska began their work last January by cleaning the mural and filling the cracks in the plaster. Then they had to decide how far to go in returning the painting to its original state, because they had no sketches or photos to help them reconstruct the parts of the image that were gone. In addition, everything they did had to be reversible, so that a future conservator could easily take the mural back to its unrestored condition. The two brushed on a layer of synthetic varnish, which neatly separated what remained of the original from whatever they added. Then they began "in-painting," filling in gaps and touching up damaged areas.

They decided to focus first on the areas of the mural that had deteriorated the least. "You have to use the knowledge of painting and the color palette to take care of the small problems first," says Bauman. "The power of the original becomes more obvious and gives us more knowledge to approach the bigger problems," such as the right side of the mural. "You don't have to be an artist, but boy, do you have to be a painter," he adds. "You have to understand color theory, have to mix and match paint. It's not just the color you're matching--you have to match the value, the hue, and the opacity of the painting."

One of the early challenges was a man in a black robe. "He's too transparent," Bauman said as he began working on him. "He's lost too much solidity. I'm trying to mute the damage so that from a distance he looks like a three-dimensional figure, not a ghost." In contrast, the mural's left side looked much as it must have the day it was painted--the figures were solid, the sky so dark that a man lifting a toy airplane seemed to leap off the wall. The prime task was to make everything look consistent.

Bauman hoped that restoring the mural would raise Scott's profile and encourage other owners of his work to restore it. Of the more than 25 murals he painted in Chicago, only 5 still exist: there are murals at not only the YMCA and Lane Tech but at Shoop Elementary, the Davis Square field house, and Pilgrim Baptist Church. Only the Pilgrim Baptist Church mural has not been restored. Scores of other Scott murals exist nationwide.

The Terra Museum exhibit helped make people in the art world aware of Scott, and one of his murals sold at auction in 2000 for $20,000, to the Greater Lafayette Museum of Art in Indiana. Curator William Taylor thinks Scott's work is worth a lot more and ought to be better recognized, though he realizes that Scott is obscure partly because he was a traditionalist, partly because he wasn't trying to become famous. "Scott did sell, but he wasn't knocking down doors," he says. "Part of Scott was that while he wanted money, he was always a creative person, he wanted to express himself."

It certainly didn't help that he was African-American. Until the 1960s, the only places African-Americans could have exhibits were at African-American libraries, schools, churches, and YMCAs. Art critics didn't see their work in museums or galleries and didn't write reviews. Nevertheless, curator Harriet Warkel says Scott was the first African-American artist to gain acceptance in both the African-American and white communities. "He was sort of crossing the border, which even today is hard to do," she says. She also points out that he managed to put portraits of African-Americans in works that a lot of white Americans would see. "In his mural of Roosevelt giving an address he was able to include blacks."

Not everyone is willing to give Scott unqualified praise. "He was a stronger painter when he was a student," says Daniel Schulman, associate curator of modern and contemporary art at the Art Institute. "I've only seen two later works by Scott--one painting sold at a recent auction and a mural at Pilgrim Baptist Church--but I think his earlier works had more freedom, more brio. His later works are a little more stiff, the brushwork is not as free. It's tighter, thicker--there's not as much joy in the paint. But certainly when you see his work on a small scale, in his easel paintings, the brushwork is there."

By early May the restoration of the Wabash YMCA mural was finished. The last step had been to spray a synthetic, nonyellowing varnish over the entire painting to protect it.

The right side now appears to seamlessly match the rest of the mural, though close examination reveals spots where paint is still missing. "We could have painted it to death, but we judge the amount of in-painting by where most people view it," says Bauman. That place is the middle of the room. "From a normal viewing point, the painting has to look consistent. If you paint it too much, it will look flat and lose the character of 1936." He thinks he and Nowosielska managed to capture Scott. "We've got his palette, his drawing, his composition," he says. "And we have his spirit."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea, collections of the Library of Congress.

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