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A mural to move Little Rock forward 

Restored Joe Jones painting centerpiece of new UA Little Rock Downtown.

click to enlarge THE MURAL: The 1935 work by Joe Jones once covered three walls at Commonwealth College in Mena. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • THE MURAL: The 1935 work by Joe Jones once covered three walls at Commonwealth College in Mena.

When artist Joe Jones painted a dramatic mural depicting the misery of sharecropping, the plight of coal miners and the lynching and burning of a black man — the "three exports of Arkansas" he's said to have described it to students at labor/socialist Commonwealth College in Mena in 1935 — he could not have imagined its future.

He could not have foreseen that the mural, painted on masonite, would survive intact for only five years before being dismantled — along with the college — and become Depression-era building material for a closet in a home in Mena. That it would be rediscovered 40 years after that and sold to a university. That 73 years after Jones put the last brush stroke on the painting, the mural, restored, would once again hang in an academic space, not in the dining room of a small left-wing college in a remote mountain town, but in a smashing new university venue on the bustling President Clinton Avenue in downtown Little Rock — where its story of Arkansas's past sins will be seen by many, inspire conversation and, perhaps, show a way forward to Arkansas's redemption.

The mural, UA Little Rock gallery director Brad Cushman said, "shouldn't exist." But it does, and can be seen when UA Little Rock Downtown holds the grand opening of its lecture/classroom space at 333 President Clinton Ave. at noon Jan. 16. There will be a program on the mural that evening, at 6 p.m.

Since 1940, when Commonwealth College shut down, the mural has taken a beating. It's been cut up, wallpapered over in places, exposed to the elements. It might have been pitched into a dumpster had the person who many years later bought the house in Mena not lifted the peeling wallpaper and discovered a painting there. If she had not decided to remove it from the house with the help of antique dealers. If someone had not called Bobby Roberts, then the chief archivist at UA Little Rock, to ask if he wanted to buy it. If a chance offer to restore part of it hadn't led to a campaign for full restoration, if a state agency had not been so wowed by the mural that it hadn't made a half million dollars available to make that happen. That's how the painting, which a labor evangelist artist believed would be appreciated as the most important mural in the South, survived.

click to enlarge GALLERY DIRECTOR BRAD CUSHMAN: He's shepherded UA Little Rock's mural's restoration for close to a decade; the St. Louis Museum of Art got the project started when it asked to repair and exhibit the central panel (below) for exhibition. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • GALLERY DIRECTOR BRAD CUSHMAN: He's shepherded UA Little Rock's mural's restoration for close to a decade; the St. Louis Museum of Art got the project started when it asked to repair and exhibit the central panel (below) for exhibition.

It's a story that Cushman, who has been working on the project to restore the "Struggle in the South" since 2009 and with University Television Director Cheryl Hellman on a documentary of its restoration, said is "truly an 'Antiques Roadshow'/'This American Life' on steroids."

Commonwealth College is known to most who are unfamiliar with its history otherwise as the place where Orval Faubus went to school, a wry irony on the man who would go on to be forever linked in history with his prevention, temporarily, of the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School.

The school, the product of a schism among the leadership of another labor college, opened in Mena in 1924, mixing classes in liberal arts with labor ideals.

In 1935, the school invited Jones, who by then had gained a national reputation, to lecture on "proletarian art and culture," the school newspaper reported, and paint a mural at the school. Jones had gained national notoriety after he was evicted from his studio in the old St. Louis courthouse, where he'd been guiding jobless African-American laborers in painting a mural, "Social Unrest in St. Louis." He had become, Cushman said, "the poster child for working classes and art."

Before starting the mural, Jones traveled across Arkansas, making hundreds of photographs. He saw coal miners in Paris, which in the 1930s had below-ground coal mining, and sharecroppers in the Delta. He knew of Arkansas's history of lynching — the last documented one had occurred only eight years earlier — and had painted imagery of lynching previously. From Mena, Jones wrote a patron in St. Louis that the food was bad — little meat, he said — but there was a good swimming hole. He wrote that there was "no question the mural will be the most important one in the lower half of the United States as well as important nationally."

Yet the college was able to raise only a portion of the $50 needed for art supplies; Jones ended up burning wood to make his own charcoal for the preliminary sketches. He enlisted students to prepare the walls, painted on the walls of a dining alcove punctuated with two windows. It is meant to be read from right to left, Cushman said: First a scene of miners, who are taking off their headlamps and emptying their buckets in anticipation of a strike. In the middle is the wrenching image of an angry, distraught black woman shaking her fist at white men who are wrestling a black man to get him up a tree for a lynching. A body hangs from a tree to the left; his body is being licked by flames. A woman opposite the body has a torch in her hand; another blonde woman onlooker has a look of horror on her face, yet she may be part of the mob. The final scene, to the left of center, is of an exhausted sharecropping couple, their crying baby and their emaciated oxen in a tarpaper shack, peering out at a white farmer. A tornado is on the horizon.

Stylistically, the painting charges the rubbery Regionalism of Thomas Hart Benton — Jones' contemporary and fellow Missourian — with an angry muscularity. Emotionally, the weird expression on a man struggling to string up his black victim — more grotesque than angry — invests the mural with a grim awfulness.

Jones worked at Commonwealth College in August and part of September of 1935. If the federal government knew of the mural, it hadn't taken offense: Jones was hired as part of the New Deal's Works Progress Administration to paint a mural on the post office walls in Magnolia. Jones' suggested idea for a mural representative of South Arkansas — a black family picnicking in front of their cabin — was nixed by the feds, who, noting his earlier famous work in Missouri, said he should paint a scene of men threshing wheat — not an Arkansas crop, but more palatable to Arkansas tastes, the WPA must have reasoned.

When Commonwealth College, in debt and disarray, closed in 1940, many of its buildings were torn down. The "Struggle in the South" was removed and taken to the home, it's believed, of the daughter of a faculty member, and nailed up; some of the panels faced in, some faced out.

Fast-forward 43 years to 1983. Cushman learned last year, quite by accident on a trip to research the college in Mena, about the circumstances of the removal of the panels in 1983 by the home's new owner. Women he'd been meeting to discuss jurying an exhibition knew the story.

Forty-four years after the college closed, Bobby Roberts got the call, from William Fadjo Cravens of Fort Smith,— a former congressman, the son of Congressman William Fadjo Cravens, about the mural. When he went to fetch the mural, he found it was lying in 29 pieces in a yard. He paid $500 for it and brought it back to UA Little Rock. It was so fragile — ripped, with water damage in places, frayed masonite in others, paint cracked like eggshells — that it was covered in brown craft paper, tucked away in permanent collection storage and not taken out to show students. There were Instamatic photos of the work, and students interested in the mural worked from those.

Another 26 years passed and Cushman, then the gallery director, got a call from the St. Louis Museum of Art, which was doing a Jones retrospective and wondered if UA Little Rock did indeed have the mural, as a book on Commonwealth said it had. Yes, Cushman said, but it was in such poor condition that not even he had seen it, and it was not in any shape to be moved. The museum persisted, however, "so we got it out and they came and they were doing backflips. They really thought it was gone," Cushman said. They offered to restore the central panels of the mural, showing the lynching, at their own cost, and UA Little Rock agreed. Ten months later, the paint still wet on the restored section, it was the centerpiece in an exhibit in St. Louis, "Social Justice."

When it was returned to Little Rock, Cushman began to think about getting the whole piece restored. A Dallas conservationist, Helen Houp, and the conservationist who'd worked on the central panel, Paul Haner, came to campus to look at it. "They spent two days talking chemistry recipes, taking microscopic pieces of paint for analysis," Cushman said. Hellman taped their conversation for the documentary she and Cushman hope to complete next year.

Coincidentally, members of the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council, which makes grants to nonprofits from a real estate transfer tax, were on campus to dedicate the new Trail of Tears Park. A downpour had forced them inside, and they were ushered over to the Fine Arts Building to see the mural, because it was out.

The next day, the university got a call. ANCRC wanted to fund the conservation, and invited UA Little Rock to apply for a grant. The grant, $500,000, paid for Houp's conservation of the mural, which took four years and six conservators, between 2012 and 2015.

click to enlarge MINERS: Coal mining in Paris inspired the portion of "Struggle in the South" that depicts laborers turning their backs on the boss. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • MINERS: Coal mining in Paris inspired the portion of "Struggle in the South" that depicts laborers turning their backs on the boss.

The conservation process is another story: It took eight cleanings to get to the original paint layer. A heat process was used to relax the flaked paint and get it to reseal. Latex imprints of Jones' brushstrokes were taken and placed in the thin layers of wax covering the missing parts of the mural so that preparators could mimic Jones' own hand in their painting. A book that details their working technique — all of it reversible — will travel with the painting wherever it goes for future restorators to consult.

So, no, "Struggle in the South" shouldn't exist. But, as Jones predicted, it is the most important mural — besting the post office murals with its daring content — in Arkansas and perhaps the most important piece of protest art here.

Originally, Cushman had thought the restored mural might go into what is now named the Anderson Institute for Race and Ethnicity. But with the creation of UA Little Rock's River Market district campus, with its high visibility, Chancellor Andrew Rogerson talked to Cushman about putting it there.

Now, the 44-by-9-foot mural is on view in a room shaped much like the alcove at Commonwealth College off the main lecture space at the UA Little Rock Downtown campus. Fabricators created frames where the mural originally met windows; part of the mural is left untouched for teaching purposes.

The mural was once in a dining hall at Commonwealth, "where it stimulated a lot of conversation," Cushman said. "So, it kind of makes sense that it's down here on 'Main Street' [metaphorically], and the conversation is going to continue."

The Central Arkansas Library System built the space occupied by UA Little Rock Downtown as part of a parking deck/street front business project. UA Little Rock leadership sees its new location as a recruitment tool and a downtown "front door" to the university. Hours will be 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. Ross Owyoung is director.

CORRECTION: The previous version of this story erred in the description of William Fadjo Smith. It was the congressman's son who contacted Bobby Roberts.
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