The Ghost Mural: Is the Strange Image on a Warehouse on West Jackson the Work of Peter Max?

Artist Denise Sanabria noticed something kind of astonishing that had somehow escaped me.

On West Jackson Avenue, near Broadway, there's something interesting on the side of what remains of the too-long-embattled McClung Warehouses. It's actually on the side of the building that has CRANE CO. embossed in marble on the facade. You can see it from one of the most unusual bars in a downtown full of unusual bars, the Corner Beer Pub.

Though the Crane building was acquired in the 1960s to become part of the huge, Sears-like hardware company known as McClung and Co., it was, for half a century after World War I, the headquarters of the company still advertised on the facade. Crane dealt in mill and plumbing equipment. Hardware giant McClung acquired the building a few years before it went out of business. Later, a nearby Philco dealer used the side of the vacant building for advertising that would have been visible from the interstate. That no-nonsense sign bears the motto, "Your Better Buy: Color TV VCR Audio."

Judging by the last time you could buy a Philco TV on West Jackson, that advertisement is at least 25 years old, and it seems to be fading more rapidly than the older mural underneath. What's emerging through it is pretty interesting. There's a giant Viking ship with a dragon head, along with some clouds, a crescent moon, Saturn, a Celtic cross, and some other runic sorts of symbols.

It's been called the "ghost mural," and it was eerie to see. It looked familiar to me, but from a long time ago.

Sanabria heard it was the work of Peter Max. Others do say it is.

Talking to folks, asking around, I've found you may need to be somewhere north of 40 to recognize that name. Peter Max was the artist laureate of the psychedelic era. There was a time—approximately the Nixon administration—when every teenager had a Peter Max poster, or sticker, or T-shirt, or album cover. Max was a pop visionary, and, for a while back then, he was one of only two or three contemporary artists the average American could name. Perhaps the most commercially successful artist of his time, Max was the subject of a 1969 Life magazine cover story, with the headline, "Portrait of the Artist as a Very Rich Man."

Born in Nazi Germany, Max was with his parents when they fled to China, then Israel, then New York, where he has lived most of his life. In the '60s, he neatly caught the wave of the bold, glowing colors of psychedelia.

After the era when he could have been considered dangerously subversive, his work has appeared on a U.S. stamp, and he has painted portraits of several presidents, including our current one. His piece called "44 Obamas" got some attention on one of the network morning shows a few years ago. Now 75, he's reputedly still active.

It might seem far-fetched that Peter Max would have a mural on an old warehouse in Knoxville, Tenn. But then again, maybe not. He was once, if briefly, a neighbor.

At the peak of his fame, Peter Max and his work were prominent at the 1974 Spokane World's Fair. When it came Knoxville's turn to have a world's fair, organizers wanted to do everything right, like the other world's fairs had done it. It was the longstanding tradition in the city I grew up in, imitating what other cities have done, a few discreet years later.

Although his hot colors were no longer in vogue in the cooler, post-punk, New Wave era of 1982, organizers invited Peter Max to be the fair's artist in residence. They set him up a modern studio on Henley Street, in that kind of odd, glassy modernistic slope-roof building nobody's doing much with now. Exactly 31 years ago, it had a huge banner that said "PETER MAX EXHIBITION/WORLD GALLERY CENTER," and the building hosted, at least occasionally, Peter Max himself. Local reporters remarked on the hyperactive 44-year-old icon, who always paced as he spoke. He said, in an interview on Henley Street, "I have a blank attitude, and I stay open for randomness." Nice work if you can get it.

I lived not too far from there and wondered if I'd run into the mustachioed star at Sam & Andy's, or Hobo's, or Arby's. I never did. In fact, I never heard much about what he did here.

Peter Max did a lot of work here, and he probably saw that mural, but did not paint it. McClung Collection librarian Rebecca Crawford got a query about the mural a few weeks ago and looked into it. She found a series of photos of the mural taken in October 1981, a few months before Max's arrival.

In the photos, the figures are much clearer, and it's more obvious that energy is the theme, with references to wind and solar and horsepower. A heroic figure stands in the foreground, holding lightning bolts. It was obviously painted in connection to the upcoming expo, because there's a huge 1982 World's Fair flame logo in the background.

The artists' signatures are visible in one photo, and they're not Max. The painting was the work of two local artists: Jeffrey Ryerson, who was apparently a fine arts student at the University of Tennessee, and Leon Weisener, who was an assistant professor. It appears that neither of them live here now, but they both seem to be still active as artists, in Colorado and Florida respectively.

It appears their painting was not visible for very long, either. The West Jackson dealership didn't carry Philco TVs and VCRs after the 1980s, and moved away in the early '90s. That ad must date from not very long after the fair. The mural's getting its revenge.

We could post a picture of it, but go have a beer at the Corner Beer Pub on a summer evening, and have a look at it yourself.