I do not consider myself to be an art aficionado, but I do appreciate art that clearly tells a story. Perhaps it is the accounting major in me that is drawn to the intricate details of art, such as the iconic western scenes of Frederic Remington and Charles Russell. Just as the characters in many of Remington and Russell’s works struggled against man and nature, a great story of struggle and progress is currently on display at the Tyler Museum of Art. “A History of Education in Morris County” is a beautiful mural by renowned Texas artist John Biggers which has recently received a thorough restoration.
According to the exhibition brochure, the story of the painting is actually three stories in one. The painting tells a story about education in Morris County, but there are also intriguing stories about the artist and the mural itself. You won’t understand all of those stories simply from looking at the painting, you have to look for the story about the painting. You will find it brings a depth of understanding to the painting that goes beyond the colors and the details left by the artist on the canvas. I would encourage you to visit the museum and enjoy the mural while you learn these interesting stories for yourself. I think we would all benefit from a few minutes of quiet reflection in front of this mural, particularly given recent actions and conversations in our country and in our community regarding this historic struggle.
The artist, John Biggers, son of a North Carolina preacher, was on his way to becoming a plumber in the early 1940’s, when he took an art class taught by a Jewish refugee who had fled Nazi persecution in Austria. Needless to say, the world had to find another plumber as Biggers discovered his passion and began his study of art. Biggers’ education included a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and doctorate in art from Pennsylvania State University, and he went on to become founder and chair of the art department at Texas Southern University, where he worked for thirty-four years until his retirement in 1983.
Early in his career in Texas, Biggers was commissioned by the Naples, Texas school board to paint a mural honoring the retirement of Mr. P.Y. Gray, principal of the new George Washington Carver High School for Negroes. Biggers interviewed Mr. Gray and the theme of the mural was adopted from the topic of Mr. Gray’s master’s thesis, a history of black education in Morris County. The mural was unveiled at the high school in 1955, and at twenty-two feet long and six feet tall, depicts four scenes chronicling the history of black education in Morris County from the Civil War to the 1950’s. The scenes depict families in a community praying for a school, rudimentary education in a one room school, significant advancements in literacy during the tenure of Mr. Gray, and lastly, the opening of the George Washington Carver High School. The role of philanthropy is depicted subtly in the mural as community members take up a collection and in the image of the Rosenwald School, which required community contributions to receive matching funds. The primary message in the mural, however, is the timeless value of education in society.
The mural hung in the library of the George Washington Carver High School for fifteen years until the ceilings were lowered in the 1970s as the building was renovated to accommodate elementary students. Fortunately, the mural was not painted on the wall itself, but was painted on cloth, so it could be removed without being destroyed. With the assistance of a grant from the Burt and Nancy Marans Charitable Fund at East Texas Communities Foundation, the mural has been meticulously restored and is on display at the Tyler Museum of Art through September 10th. Following this showing in Tyler, the mural will be on permanent display at Northeast Texas Community College, in Mount Pleasant. Burt Marans and his wife Nancy both loved art and were interested in bringing cultural and educational opportunities to students and citizens of northeast Texas. I hope you will take the time to view the John Biggers’ mural in Tyler or at its permanent home at NTCC and learn from the stories of the artist, the mural, and the history of education in our region. Perhaps investing in a cultural project, such as preserving an amazing piece of history, is your next best opportunity to give well.