Dr. Sylvia Rhor is Associate Professor of Art History at Carlow University. Dr. Rhor received an M.A. and Ph.D. in the History of Art from the University of Pittsburgh and a B.A. in Art History from New York University, where she was a Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholar. Her doctoral thesis focused on the recently restored murals in Chicago's public schools; Dr. Rhor's thesis marks the first sustained scholarly analysis of that collection. She became involved with this collection while directing "Chicago: A City in Art" at The Art Institute of Chicago. In that capacity, Dr. Rhor was part of a large-scale effort to locate, preserve, document and re-integrate historic murals into contemporary school life. After leaving the Art Institute, she was hired by Chicago Public Schools as a consultant for the mural collection. She also contributed research and an essay to Heather Becker's Art for the People and served on the curatorial team for To Inspire and to Instruct: The Art Collection of Chicago Public Schools, an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. She is currently preparing her doctoral thesis for publication. Dr. Rhor will be drawing on her work on the historic murals in Chicago public schools in her upcoming lecture at the Decorated School Research Network conference in February 2013. An overview of her lecture is provided here.
Outstanding American Women:
Shaping Chicago's Public Schools through Murals in the early 20th Century1
Sylvia Rhor, PhD
In 1941, the Chicago Board of Education declared that Edward Millman’s (1907-1964) fresco Outstanding American Woman in Lucy Flower Technical High School was unacceptable.2
Millman’s fresco cycle, which spanned six walls in the school’s entrance foyer, depicted a series of well-known American women such as Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Clara Barton. Though the Board praised the artist's choice of women, they stated that the mural was “lacking in the spirit we wish to have in a public school to inspire young American womanhood and that anyone looking at the mural would get the impression [the murals] are stressing poverty and the failure of our democracy to uplift its people.”3 Under directives from the Board of Education, the fresco was covered with white calcimine in November 1941. It remained obscured from the public until 1995, when conservators from the Chicago Conservation Center uncovered the fresco, then hidden under layers of paint and school paraphernalia.
The censoring of Millman's fresco at Flower High School raises a number of questions regarding the role of mural painting in early 20th century public education in Chicago. Commissioned by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project (WPA-FAP), one of the New Deal relief programs for artists, it was one of hundreds of mural placed in public buildings during the Great Depression. In keeping with WPA-FAP policy, the theme – women’s contribution to American civilization – had been chosen in collaboration with project supervisors and the school principal. For an all-girls’ school like Flower, the subject seemed particularly suitable. In fact, it was well received by the school’s students, who declared his portrayal “heroic” in the school yearbook of 1940.
Before embarking on this project, too, Millman had not only completed several successful New Deal mural commissions in Chicago and throughout the United States, but had also served as arbiter in several high profile censorship cases. As such, he was intimately familiar with the parameters of acceptable imagery and subject matter for school murals. Nevertheless, the fresco proved unviable by Board standards.
Given that the teachers, students and FAP supervisors firmly supported the mural, what was it then that made this fresco untenable? How did Millman’s work contradict the notions of “democracy,” “womanhood” and “uplift” evoked in the Board’s criticism? Millman’s affiliation with left-wing politics of the 1930s makes it tempting to view his mural within the context of New Deal murals and place it among other similarly controversial works of the period. However, this reading neglects the fresco’s place within a long tradition of mural painting in Chicago public schools.
Between 1905 and 1943, over 2000 mural panels (approximately 500 cycles) were executed for city schools. These monumental panels lined corridors, auditoriums and libraries of city schools and included examples from some of Chicago’s best-known artists.
As I demonstrated in my thesis, the school mural movement emerged under the auspices of activist clubwomen in Chicago in the opening decades of the 20th century. It was precisely through the commissioning and placement of murals in public schools that middle-class women successfully intervened in educational politics in the years before suffrage. The groundwork laid by such groups informed mural painting in schools until the end of the New Deal, when Millman’s mural was censored. A sustained analysis of the censorship of Millman's fresco at Flower within the context of the long tradition of the school mural movement in Chicago reveals that murals were pivotal tools for intervening in educational politics and articulating varying notions of democracy in the early twentieth century. In fact, I argue, that Millman's depiction of women such as Jane Addams, Lucy Flower, and Grace Abbott, Millman simultaneously evoked the very network of female reform that had given rise to the school mural movement in Chicago, and critiqued the biases of public education in Chicago in the 1940s. Moreover, the restoration and reintegration of Millman's fresco and other historic murals into Chicago's public schools at the opening of the 21st century brings attention to the contemporary role of art in public education. The rediscovery and use of the historic mural collection demonstrates the critical role that conservators, museum professionals and citizens groups play in preserving the arts in public schools at a moment when these very disciplines are being radically cut from the curriculum.
1 This text is drawn in part from my doctoral thesis, Educating America: Murals and Public Education in Chicago, 1905-1941 (Ph.D. diss., University of Pittsburgh, 2004).
2 Lucy Flower Technical High School was re-named Lucy Flower Vocational High School in 1956 and re-named once in 1995 as Lucy Flower Career Academy. The school became co-educational in the 1970s. The school was closed in 2003.
3 Marcia Winn, “’Dismal!’ So High School Murals are Painted Out,” Chicago Tribune, December 5, 1941.