City Hall murals topic of four-part educational series

Free program on artwork in City Council Chambers begins Nov. 8

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CEDAR RAPIDS — If you’ve attended a Cedar Rapids City Council meeting recently, you’ve likely noticed the striking murals that surround the Council Chambers.

Four distinct murals — one painted on each wall of the room — are fully on view to the public after a four-year restoration process from 2011 to 2015 that was paid for using grant money and private fundraising dollars.

As with many works of public art, the murals in City Hall have a rich and interesting history. In order to share that with the public, city officials have organized a series of lectures highlighting the historic background of the murals, the artists and the unique cultural heritage they portray.

The city first hosted this lecture series in 2015 while the restoration project — to remove layers of paint that covered the original murals — was in progress. Now, with the restoration complete, organizers decided the timing was right to host the series again.

Titled “History Restored: Law & Culture in City Hall Murals,” the series kicks off Nov. 8 with a lecture by Kristy Raine, reference librarian and archivist at Mount Mercy University. Raine has done extensive research about the Grant Wood Art Colony, of which the mural artists were a part. Her lecture, “Opening of the Midwest: Six Men and a Mural, focuses on the north mural wall and include the stories of the artists who formed the Cooperative Mural Painters Group, including Howard Johnson, Everett Jeffrey, Francis Robert White, Harry Donald Jones and Donald Glasell.

“I need little incentive to talk about Grant Wood and the men who were part of this mural story, who were magnificent artists in their own right,” said Raine. “It’s a wonderful thing to celebrate their legacy.”

Raine noted Cedar Rapids has a tremendous history, particularly during the Depression era, of professional artists who were making amazing contributions to the community.

“It’s been a joy to watch that courtroom come back to life again,” she said, referencing the room’s previous use as a federal courtroom before it became Council Chambers. “Many people don’t know the story and I think it’s a phenomenal thing that we’ve been given the opportunity bring it back and share its story. And I think many people will be pleased and quite floored to just sit in that room and take in the beauty of it and hear the stories of the people who were a part of it.”

Mural Controversy

The mural hasn’t been without controversy over the years.

Twice since it was painted in the mid-1930s, federal court officials decided to hide it beneath a coat of paint because of the content of some of the images, and then because the art was not thought to have much value.

A section on the east wall, which included the depiction of a hanging directly across from the then-courtroom’s jury box, helped prompt the mural to be painted over in 1951. That section also featured an image of a physician consulting with a naked patient surrounded by the newspaper headlines “Sweden Defeats Syphilis” and “Play Ball.”

In the early 1960s, the art was uncovered, briefly examined and then covered over again. The city undertook the restoration, wall by wall, when it took over the former courthouse building in 2011.

Other lectures

The upcoming lecture series continues December through February.

In December, Cedar Rapids Museum of Art Executive Director Sean Ulmer will discuss “Inherited Culture” taking a look at the south wall. Organizers hope to include a conference call from Scott Haskins, President and Chief Conservator of the Fine Arts Conservation Laboratories of Santa Barbara, Calif., the company that handled the time consuming and detailed restoration process.

Ulmer will continue the series in January with a look at the east wall with “American Civilizations”. And finally, in February, local artist and performer Mel Andringa will discuss the west wall mural in a lecture titled “Contemporary Life.”

“The murals are a pretty valuable resource that the community owns and it’s something not very many people in the community have seen,” said Seth Gunnerson, planner for the city’s Community Development Department and a liaison to the Visual Arts Commission who helped organize the restoration and the lecture series. “They are unique murals and they are awesome to sit and look at.” Gunnerson noted that if residents are unable to attend the lectures, the building is open to the public during the week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and visitors are welcome to walk through when council chambers are not in use. “The city is the caretaker for the murals and we want to make sure people are aware of it and have a chance to see it.”

All lectures will be held in the City Hall Council Chambers on the third floor of City Hall, 101 First St. SE, and are free to the public.

If you go

What: “History Restored: Law & Culture in City Hall Murals” lecture series

When: 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Nov. 8, Dec. 13, Jan. 10, Feb. 15

Where: Cedar Rapids City Hall, 101 First St. SE

Cost: Free

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