The twenty-eight-foot historic mural that has survived controversy, vandalism, and an impending demolition of its longtime home will be featured in an exhibit that opens June 6 at UT’s Downtown Gallery.
The History of Tennessee painting—also known as the Greenwood Mural—will be on display along with eighteen other works by celebrated muralist Marion Greenwood. The sixty-year-old, 300-pound oil-on-canvas work hung in the ballroom of UT’s Carolyn P. Brown University Center from 1954 until last July. It was removed in anticipation of the building’s demolition to make room for a new student union.
The exhibit, titled Marion Greenwood in Tennessee, will feature paintings, lithographs, and other works on loan from local collectors who purchased them from Greenwood when she was a visiting UT professor from 1954 to 1955. The show, which runs through August 9, will also feature a thirteen-foot mural, Man’s Partnership with Nature, which was installed in the Crossville, Tennessee, US Post Office in 1940. The Tennessee Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture commissioned Greenwood to paint the work, which depicts the impact of a Tennessee Valley Authority dam on everyday life.
UT’s mural was a source of controversy in the1960s when some students expressed concern over its portrayal of African Americans, particularly a man who appears to be a slave or sharecropper. In May 1970, the painting was vandalized with paints and solvents. After the mural was repaired, new threats were made against it, so in 1972 it was covered by the ballroom’s paneling. New York-based EverGreene Architectural Arts performed additional restoration work last summer and prepared it for storage.
“The public unveiling of the Greenwood mural at the UT Downtown Gallery is an exciting moment for the UT community, for Knoxville, and for historians of the state of Tennessee and of American art in the early and mid-twentieth century,” said Dottie Habel, director of the UT School of Art, which oversees the gallery. “It is a valuable treasure that highlights Tennessee’s rich musical traditions. UT is honored to be a steward of this masterpiece, which will tell the story of our great state for generations to come.”
The summer exhibit will be available during three First Friday celebrations downtown. The UT Downtown Gallery also will be open 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays and 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on Saturdays.
UT intends to retain the Greenwood Mural but would like to find an institutional partner with a facility that would accommodate the large size of the painting for more permanent exhibition.
The mural features twenty-eight people engaged in various forms of song and dance, depicting the musical heritage of the state’s three divisions: west, middle and east. The left side portrays Mississippi River jazz and blues, as well as slave spirituals of West Tennessee. The center features a country hoedown with dancers and musicians. The right side showcases the religious-based Appalachian music of East Tennessee.
“This is a chance to highlight something of great historical value to Tennessee,” said Mike Berry, manager of the UT Downtown Gallery. “It’s literally to see the painting in a new light. Before, it was in this dark ballroom that seemed outdated to most contemporary students. Now you’ll see it in a light-filled gallery and view it on a different merit as a piece of art that was painted long ago—like we’re exhibiting a Rembrandt.”
He added: “When we see all of Greenwood’s work together, it’s almost like peeking into her journal and getting more information about her as an artist. You get a whole new understanding of her body of work—rather than just one work that may or may not have been taken out of context.”
The Greenwood Mural remained under cover for thirty-four years until the paneling was removed in 2006, prompted by student requests. Following the unveiling, UT’s Issues Committee and Visual Arts Committee held a forum, titled “The Greenwood Mural Project,” to discuss race, art and culture, and censorship. The mural was covered with Plexiglas and curtains in January 2007.
Eric Harkness, a 2006 alumnus and a member of the committee instrumental in pushing for the uncovering of the mural, said he was pleased the painting will now have a wider audience.
“It’s certainly a good thing that the mural will be on display at an appropriate venue where anyone can learn from it and study it,” said Harkness, who is now a health policy advisor for the Tennessee Department of Health. “Artistically, it’s a magnificent piece. Culturally, it provokes thought and discussion and I think that’s a good thing.”
Greenwood was the first American woman to receive a commission from a foreign government, a 700-square-foot fresco of Indian life at the University of San Nicolas Hidalgo in Morelia, Mexico. She also established a working relationship with Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.
For more information about Marion Greenwood, visit the Clara database.
For more information about the UT Downtown Gallery or the Greenwood exhibit, visit the website.
Lola Alapo (865-974-3993, firstname.lastname@example.org)