More of restored Depression-era mural is unveiled at Cedar Rapids City Hall

"Inherited culture" is theme of mural's second section

Rick Smith
Published: July 11 2013 | 2:52 pm - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 4:58 am in
Print Print

Two down, two to go.

A second of four sections of a Depression-era mural now has been restored in what today is the City Council chambers of City Hall and what had been the central courtroom when the building at 101 First St. SE had been the federal courthouse here.

Twice since the four-wall mural called Law and Culture was painted in 1936 and 1937 as part of federal Treasury Relief Art Project, it was painted over after federal district court judges concluded that the mural imagery was either too controversial or substandard art.

"I can’t imagine we would ever want to paint over it again," Mel Andringa, a Cedar Rapids artist and a member of the city’s Visual Arts Commission, said on Thursday as he looked up at the newly uncovered section of mural and explained what it showed.

"I think this is part of our cultural history," he continued. "It represents a real story that should be told, and it’s a cultural asset to the community. It will just continue to have relevance."

Every inch of the top approximately five-and-a-half feet of the walls in the 49-by-61-foot courtroom is covered by sections of mural, all of which were painted over in 1954 by one federal judge, uncovered by another in 1961, and recovered again sometime in the 1960s.

The mural section on the room’s north wall was uncovered in the spring of 2011 as the City Council began holding its meetings in the former courtroom even as the courthouse was still being transformed into City Hall.

The total cost to restore the second section of mural, on the room’s south wall, is about $125,000 when related ceiling and lighting work are included, Sandi Fowler, the city’s assistant city manager, said on Thursday. The restoration work was done by Fine Art Conservation Laboratories, Santa Barbara, Calif.

Andringa, co-founder of Legion Arts in Cedar Rapids, said that each wall was painted by a different artist with a fifth artist contributing some work as well.

The artists, he said, were young at the time and had been students of Grant Wood. They wanted to paint pictures relevant to the Depression in contrast to Wood’s work that hearkened back to a simpler, more bucolic time in Iowa and America.

"They were pushing the envelope a little bit," Andringa said. "They were making a political statement as well."

In the newly uncovered section of the mural, the theme is "inherited culture" and makes the point that a society needs to go back to the roots of past civilizations to understand the present, he said.

There is a depiction of an archaeologist uncovering bones in an Iowa setting; of a filmmaker filming artifacts from the Aztec and Mayan times; the recognition of corn in ancient civilizations; and a contemporary image of an Iowa cornfield and the arrival of industry.

In the first section of mural at the front of the room, the story is more grim and makes the case that "the course of civilization is hard and not so optimistic," Andringa said.

The section, he said, depicts the travails of American Indians upon the arrival of white settlers, slavery, coolies working on the railroad and the tenements of urban America in the industrial age.

"They did need work," Andringa said of the artists working under federal contract during the Depression. "But money was not the primary driving force to get the commission. They were young artists, and they wanted to see their work in important places. They wanted to make statements that they felt weren’t being made."

He said the big room now doubles as something of a museum with the mural restoration, and Barb Potter, the city manger’s executive administrative assistant, said Thursday that residents and visitors can and do come into City Hall and view the art in the third-floor council chambers during the workday.

The city’s Fowler said the cost of the most recent restoration was paid by private donations in a campaign that continues as the city plans to uncover and restore the other two sections of the mural. Next in line is the mural section on the east wall, which features among its images a hanging as part of Western frontier justice. Jurors in the former courtroom looked right at the hanging scene, which apparently was one reason to paint over the mural, Andringa said.

One of the just revealed images is a confusing one that Andringa said shows a Mexican mural artist painting an Apocalyptic scene of Jesus cutting down the cross. In tough times like a Depression, people think about the end of the world, he said.

One of the images yet to be revealed on the room’s east wall notes that Sweden had defeated syphilis while an image of Depression era bread lines is one of those on the west wall, he said.

Have you found an error or omission in our reporting? Is there other feedback and/or ideas you want to share with us? Tell us here.