Restored African-American school mural on view at Tyler Museum of Art Aug. 20-Sept. 10

Published on Tuesday, 8 August 2017 13:59 - Written by

JON PERRY, Special to the Tyler Paper

The Tyler Museum of Art, in collaboration with Northeast Texas Community College, is offering a unique opportunity to view a historic work of art recently restored to its original beauty.

A mural titled “John Biggers: A History of Education in Morris County” will be on view to the public Aug. 20 to Sept. 10 at the museum, 1300 S. Mahon Ave., on the Tyler Junior College campus.

A selection of additional works by Biggers will accompany the installation of the mural in the Museum’s Education Classroom. Admission is free.

The historic 22-by-6-foot mural, one of four painted between 1950 and 1956 in Texas African-American communities by legendary artist and Texas Southern University art department founder Dr. John Biggers, recently underwent an extensive restoration process following decades away from public view.

The mural portrays the artist’s interpretation in the 1950s of education for African-American children in rural northeast Texas.

“This powerful work of art portrays a story of the struggle for education in rural Texas in the 1950s, and the story of how the opportunity to show this epic work in our community evolved is a fascinating tale in itself,” TMA Executive Director Chris Leahy said.

“For the past year the TMA has been involved with Northeast Texas Community College and Jon Alexander in restoring the life to this piece of American history,” Leahy. “This is a great opportunity to celebrate the opening of a new school year with this mural about the education of young African-American children in the 1950s in Morris County, Texas.”

After its stay at Tyler Museum of Art, the artwork will move to its permanent home at Northeast Texas Community College campus in Mount Pleasant.

Support for this project is generously provided by The Burt and Nancy Marans Charitable Fund at East Texas Communities Foundation.

Museum members and guests are invited for the mural’s unveiling Saturday at the museum.

MURAL’S HISTORY

Although specific to the history of black educational progress in Morris County, the story the mural tells probably did not vary greatly throughout the South, according to Dr. Olive Jensen Theisen, author of “Walls That Speak: The Murals of John Thomas Biggers.”

In 1953-54, Superintendent Frank G. Bean of the then-Naples school district in Morris County (now Pewitt ISD) commissioned Biggers, then an emerging young artist, to paint the mural to commemorate the legacy of P.Y. Gray, who was retiring after 30 years as the first full-time teacher in Morris County as well as principal of the new George Washington Carver High School for African-American students.

Biggers went to work in Houston and rendered the painting on a single bolt of muslin that could be transported easily. (his previous two murals of the era were site-specific), which then was stretched on a wooden frame and installed in the Carver High School library where it was unveiled on March 20, 1955.

After integration came to Morris County schools 15 years later, Carver High was converted into Paul Pewitt Elementary and the ceilings were lowered to accommodate the younger student body. The massive mural was moved into storage. It was in an outdoor shed until former Carver students and parents began investigating its whereabouts and it finally was returned to the Pewitt Elementary library.

Leahy and Alexander, a Tyler attorney and Tyler Museum of Art board member who grew up in Morris County, discovered the Biggers mural at that location in early 2016 and arranged to have it shipped to Dallas for much-needed restoration work as a joint effort with Northeast Texas Community College administrators and Pewitt ISD officials.

The restoration recently was completed.

If you go

Tyler Museum of Art is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. For information, call 903-595-1001.

Also on view

On exhibit at the museum are:

-- “Double Take: Works by Ed Blackburn” through Aug. 20

-- “Making A Splash” through Sept. 17

Jon Perry is the communications coordinator at The Tyler Museum of Art.