A radical view of Arkansas | Rock Candy

Monday, October 11, 2010

A radical view of Arkansas

Posted By on Mon, Oct 11, 2010 at 4:31 PM

A mural painted in Arkansas by a Communist artist in 1935 — "The Struggle of the South" — has been stored out of view at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock since 1984, when the university purchased it — in 29 pieces on masonite salvaged from an old house in Fort Smith.

Now, the St. Louis Art Museum is exhibiting a portion of the mural, which it restored at its own expense, in its show "Joe Jones: Painter of the American Scene," and Jones' work is getting new attention in Arkansas. The St. Louis Post Dispatch published a story about Jones and the exhibit in its Sunday edition. Bobby Roberts, head of the Central Arkansas Library System, who was UALR archivist in 1984, is quoted throughout. He says he made the decision to buy the mural for $500 "sight unseen." From the story:

"The images were pretty shocking," Roberts said. "I'm a historian, not an art critic, but I could feel their power. Jones' interpretation of Arkansas — cotton growing, union busting and lynching — was probably not far off the mark, I suspect, for those days."

The mural segment shows a lynching, and though Jones said he was self-taught, I'd say fellow Missourian Thomas Hart Benton may have influenced Jones' style some.

UALR gallery curator Brad Cushman, who SLAM first contacted about the mural last summer, and Cheryl Hellman University TV are working on a documentary about the mural and the restoration project. The mural is tremendously important as the largest work by the artist, who was born in St. Louis, in existence. UALR will try to raise funds to complete the restoration of the piece, which is 44 feet by 8 feet.

"The Struggle of the South" was painted at the radical Commonwealth College in Mena (the unlikely alma mater of Orval Faubus) and depicts sharecropping, coal mining and lynching — which Jones called Arkansas's "major exports," according to a piece about the exhibit on a state history listserv. Social injustice and racism were Jones' themes until later in life when, according to wikipedia, Jones accepted a commission by Standard Oil.

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