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Wall Flowers

Virtually unseen for years, historic school murals are being brought into the light by a group of determined preservationists.



When art preservationist Heather Becker placed a call to Tilton Elementary in 1995, she was looking for three lunette murals above the auditorium doors, painted in 1910-'11 by Janet Laura Scott. Becker was researching murals painted in Chicago public schools between the turn of the century and the New Deal, with the eventual aim of restoring them, and Scott's works at the west-side school--depicting Christopher Columbus, the Pilgrims, and William Penn--were among the oldest Becker had heard about.

The school told her the murals were gone, though she was welcome to come by and poke around. "I ran into the engineer when I was there, and I asked him. And he said, 'You know what? They were in the garbage can years ago and I pulled them out and I've been keeping them in the storage room for years.' He took me down there, and sure enough, laying on this stack of boxes were these three paintings that had been painted over several times, covered in chips of white paint, and--since they were torn off the wall--there were scattered cracks across the surface. And I said, 'Oh my God, these were the original works!'"

Her boss and partner in research, Barry Bauman, owner of the Chicago Conservation Center in River North, restored the murals and reinstalled them. A year or so after the Tilton visit, Becker and Bauman's independent undertaking became the Mural Preservation Project, a $1.5 million program funded by the Chicago Board of Education and the Public Building Commission to bring 437 extant school murals back to their former color and glory. Last month Chronicle Books published Becker's book about their efforts, Art for the People: The Rediscovery and Preservation of Progressive- and WPA-Era Murals in the Chicago Public Schools, 1904-1943.

During the Progressive era, which lasted from the 1890s to the 1920s, muralists such as William Edouard Scott and John Warner Norton decorated schools with works partly intended to Americanize immigrant children. With the onset of the Depression, President Roosevelt's work-relief programs for artists--the Public Works of Art Project (1933-'34) and the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project (1935-'43)--encouraged artists to promote a national ideal during dispiriting times. In Chicago, the great majority of FAP works were painted in schools.

Becker, who earned a bachelor's degree from the School of the Art Institute in 1989, became fascinated by the restoration of a chapel fresco while on a painting scholarship in Umbria. "Not that I wanted to be a hands-on conservator," she says, "but the concept of preserving culture came to the forefront, for me, for the first time." She got a job as an assistant at the Chicago Conservation Center and in '93 prepared a marketing plan that helped raise the company's profile.

Becker and Bauman's interest in the murals was sparked in 1994, when Flora Doody, a teacher at Lane Tech High School, became concerned about a damaged mural in her building. She contacted Bauman, who was surprised to discover at Lane one of the largest early-20th-century mural collections anywhere--66 pieces, including works by Mitchell Siporin and Edgar Britton, two of Chicago's best-known New Deal muralists. As Doody developed a curriculum that would allow Lane Tech students to study the art on their own walls, Becker and Bauman started looking for neglected artwork in other schools. Their plan of attack: she'd head up research, he'd take care of preservation.

One of Becker's first visits was to Lucy Flower Career Academy, where principal Dorothy Williams was having trouble trying to interest the city in restoring Edward Millman's Outstanding American Women. The six-panel foyer fresco depicted women, both black and white, engaged in labor and reform struggles. School murals rarely tackled social-realist commentary; their subject matter usually included local and world history, science, music, and literature and depicted scenes of farms, factories, and landscapes. In 1941, a year after it was completed, an all-male Board of Education committee had deemed Millman's work "subversive" and had it whitewashed.

When Becker, unaware of Williams's frustrations, showed up with black-and-white photographs of the original mural in hand, she says Williams "was so relieved to know someone was serious about getting it done." She adds, "I think art has the ability to create discussion and debate. The mural at Lucy Flower was so powerful, and here it had been completely covered up. That gave us inspiration to go out there and do something." In 1995 the Chicago Conservation Center raised funds from the Board of Ed as well as various foundations. It took an entire year and $34,000 to uncover the mural.

In early 1996, Bauman and Becker met with Ben Reyes, then the Chicago Public Schools' chief operating officer, and proposed a schoolwide restoration effort. Becker says that Reyes "was the first person to understand the potential of the idea," and he worked to get the support of city and school officials. The three-phase Mural Preservation Project was launched later that year as part of a $2 billion capital improvement program in the schools; since then it has linked up with educational programs spearheaded by the Art Institute of Chicago that teach schoolkids about art, history, and conservation issues.

In Art for the People, Becker chronicles the project as well as the histories of the murals themselves and of American mural art in general. The 256-page tome includes 250 color photographs as well as more than two dozen essays by historians, educators, artists, and students--Francis V. O'Connor, Studs Terkel, Ed Paschke, and muralist Lucile Ward Robinson, to name a few. "I wanted people to gain an understanding, not only on the local level but also on the national level, of how mural art can be used as a way to cause social change and create environments that are influential in the public eye," says the author. "Chronicle [Books] picked up on the fact that it not only was a local story about Chicago. It was also about a grassroots project that started out small and struggled through many hurdles to end up being the largest mural preservation project in American history."

As she discovered during the four years it took to verify and document works spread across 68 schools, the Tilton episode was a familiar scenario. "This collection was really a legacy on the verge of being completely lost," she says. "Everything from murals being torn down to people not knowing what they were to them being whitewashed." She's seen how the mural renovation endeavors have enriched students' learning environments. She's still mystified as to why American wall art, in schools or anywhere else, is so often marginalized. "Murals can be a real harbinger for change," she says. "More than any other medium, they have the most capability of reaching the masses. I think it's ironic that it's been kept out of our art history books to the degree in which it has."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.

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