The smell of adhesives and solvents in the University of Tennessee University Center’s ballroom marks the beginning of the next chapter in the strangest art story in Knoxville history. Over the next two weeks, EverGreene Architectural Arts of New York will be working on restoring and preserving the controversial 29-foot-long Greenwood Mural, before removing it from the University Center, scheduled to be demolished late next year. In the short term, the University of Tennessee will store it in its warehouse on Middlebrook Pike, then put it on display, temporarily, at the UT Downtown Gallery next June, for a six-week exhibit. Its fate has drawn interest from art scholars around the country.
What happens to it after that has not been determined, but Dotty Habel, director of UT’s School of Art, hopes the painting, which is appraised at $175,000, will stay at UT. The removal and restoration will cost $69,600. “We’re loath to give it away or let it become part of another permanent institution,” Habel says. “Ultimately we hope there might be a campus site for it.” It’s reportedly too big for McClung Museum.
Though the painting has been hanging on the same wall for 58 years, it has experienced a long, strange trip right there.
In 1954, UT hired mural artist Marion Greenwood as an artist in residence with a big commission. Brooklyn-born Greenwood, who had studied in Paris and spent much of her career working for the Mexican government, was white, but best known for her multi-ethnic subjects. Closely associated with internationally known Diego Rivera, Greenwood is said to be the first American woman to receive an art commission from a foreign government. She painted a huge fresco of Indian life at the University of San Nicolas Hidalgo in Morelia, Mexico. Later, she became known for her work with black subjects, from Harlem to Haiti.
For a university that still did not accept black undergraduates, it might seem remarkable that the Greenwood project—the most conspicuous painting ever commissioned by the university—included both black and white models and subjects. Eight of its 28 figures were African-American. She first called the painting “The History of Tennessee”; history textbooks of the time did not include proportions anything like that.
Even more controversial in 1954, during the McCarthy era, might have been her associations with some prominent Communists. Plus, UT had never spent so much on public art, and here they were giving public money to a Yankee artist. For UT in 1954, the Greenwood Mural likely seemed a Hail Mary pass at progressivism.
But it wasn’t controversial for any of that. Politely sidestepping suggestions she interpret historic battles or UT football, the 45-year-old artist painted a 29-foot-long mural interpreting the state’s musical heritage. Working out of her studio in a house on Clinch Avenue, she used some local models. UT’s dignitaries unanimously liked it; Greenwood called it her best work in the U.S. For 15 years, without incident, it was the most prominent canvas at UT.
Only during the antiwar unrest of May, 1970, just after the Kent State killings, was the painting damaged, with paint, acid, and a nasty cut.
No one claimed credit for the vandalism, and it’s not clear it had any political motive. The most obviously damaged part was the white square-dancing couple in the middle. But under scrutiny, the painting was soon getting new criticism that it was racist.
After declaring the painting a “total loss,” and posting a $1,000 reward for identifying the vandal—never collected—UT repaired the painting. To be on the safe side, in 1972, the university covered the painting with wood paneling.
It remained covered, unseen by the public and practically forgotten, for 34 years. In 2006, in response to a student-led initiative, UT uncovered the painting for its first public showing since the Nixon administration.
The painting was more ambiguous than some remembered. Some remarked that it wasn’t obvious that the cotton picker was a slave, or that he was happily servile, or inferior to the white characters in the painting. Some had heard the painting showed minstrel-show buffoons.
That night, one of the elders on the panel, Eric Abercrumbie, an art professor from the University of Cincinnati, opened the discussion, denouncing the painting as racist. “It made me sick to my stomach,” he said. “To me, it’s racism. It clearly depicts segregation. It depicts the plantation life. Guess what? I don’t want to go back to the good ol’ days. The whole thing needs to go!”
Some agreed, but others, including several blacks in attendance, didn’t see it. The room of 300 attendees held dozens of points of view. The general conclusion was that if the painting had value, the University Center probably was not the best place for it.
It was covered back up, this time with Plexiglas and a curtain.
EverGreene is a New York company, but was also in charge of much of the Tennessee Theatre’s interior restoration, 10 years ago.
Noted art restorer Bryon Roesselet, of EverGreene, remarks, “It really is a wonderful painting,” noting that it can be seen as a collection of interesting portraits. “For this to be the subject of controversy, to me, is a great frustration. Greenwood tended to avoid politics. She would just be stunned, I think, to see anyone upset about that.”
Greenwood may never have heard it called racist. She had died in 1970, at age 60, at her home in Woodstock, N.Y.