By Kenzie Messer
“One beautiful fall Saturday morning in 1985, I was searching for some audio-visual equipment for my class,” Theisen said. “I was not looking for a missing mural. But there, leaning against a wall, was a large mural painting that certainly looked like an early John Biggers work.”
-An excerpt from Dr. Ollie Theison “Walls That Speak: The Murals of John Thomas Biggers (2010)
After years of being on display in the Paul Pewitt Elementary School library, internationally recognized African American artist John Biggers’ original mural the History of Negro Education in Morris County, Texas will now be displayed on the Northeast campus in the newly redesigned Learning Resource Center.
Paul Pewitt School District generously loaned the mural to the college to be displayed for a minimum of 20 years.
“I think we are very fortunate to have this piece,” Northeast Vice President for Advancement Dr. Jonathan McCullough said. “Because this is going to be so visible, I have a feeling that we will have visitors on campus that would have never been here for any other reason except to see that art.”
The story of the unique piece begins in 1955 when Biggers was commissioned to paint the mural. The artwork depicts the struggles that African Americans faced in the early 20th century while trying to obtain an education. After the painting was completed, it was displayed for several years in what was once Carver High School, the segregated African American school located between Naples and Omaha, Texas.
In the first and second scenes of the mural, the artist illustrates a preacher reaching out to his parishioners in prayer of a better life and a teacher that seems hopeless by what she sees as her students’ lack of education. The mood of the story changes with a center panel that has a patchwork of African American culture surrounding Carver High Principal P.Y. Gray as he reaches out his hand with “seeds of hope.” The last unit of the mural shows the excitement of the students and teachers as they gather outside their new schoolhouse excitedly ready for a school day to begin.
In the 1970s, Carver High became a desegregated elementary school and the mural was placed into storage under a band hall.
In her book, Walls That Speak: The Murals of John Thomas Biggers, Dr. Ollie Theisen explains how she found the mural and reconnected Biggers to the art piece that he had painted more than 30 years before.
Theisen, former Northeast Texas Community College art professor, tells how she discovered the painting in the elementary school’s old library, which was being used for storage. She wrote that the painting had made its way to the library after being moved from the band hall to an outdoor storage shed where it sat for several years.
Theisen recognized Biggers’ work and eventually contacted him to discuss her find.On Oct. 27, 1989, Biggers returned to the Naples/Omaha area for a rededication ceremony for the painting. In her book, Theisen shares the feelings that the artist had for the special story that he told in the mural.
“This event marks for me the climax of my career,” Biggers said at the event. “I need nothing else. I told a story with meaning for this community, which you have kept alive all these years-this is why I paint. There is no greater satisfaction.” McCullough said an anonymous donor sometime back learned about the artwork and approached the college about bringing it to the campus so that more people could enjoy Biggers’ work. He said having the mural on campus would be a great opportunity for the college.
“I am very grateful for the fact that the Pewitt school board was willing to trust us with it,” Northeast President Dr. Brad Johnson said. “I think it’s a tremendous opportunity for the college to further a part of our obligation as a college. The black community may treasure this, but in my opinion all of us should treasure it. It’s an important part of us being who we need to be as a college to this community.”
Once the college learned that it was going to have the distinct honor of displaying the unique piece, plans are currently being made to highlight the artwork.
“When we discovered that we may have an opportunity to obtain the mural, we then asked the architects to reflect on what could be done on something that significant,” Johnson said. “Being able to put it adjacent there where people pull up and drop people off, they’ll see it seemed to be a very appropriate place to put it.”
The architects are creating a way to light the classroom, so visitors will be able to see the painting at night from the circle in the front of the college. The mural’s journey is so intriguing to some in the art world that they have volunteered to help with the project in whatever way they could.
“It’s a fabulous story of our history of education in Texas,” Tyler Museum of Art Director Christopher Leahy said. “One of the reasons I got involved with this project is because it’s such a great part of our history and our art history. In its own right, it’s a tremendous work of art. The struggle that is represented in this image makes a hugely compelling story. In its own right, it’s a fabulous work of art.”
The mural is currently being restored by Helen Houp, a conservator in Dallas. After the mural’s restoration is complete over the course of several months, it will be displayed at the Tyler Museum of Art before being moved to the Northeast campus.
“I’m absolutely over the moon that we will be able to show it here,” Leahy said. “It will be a great opportunity for all the folks in Tyler to be able to see it. It’s the kind of painting that you don’t get to see every day. If any message comes through this painting, it’s the joy of being able to get an education.”
Leahy said it will be a great opportunity for the college to have the privilege to permanently display the mural.
“It’s really a priceless piece,” McCullough said. “The artist has passed away since he painted it, and it has a long history behind it. We are fortunate to have a piece of art that is so instrumental in education in our area.”