By Gregory Gilbert
Associate Professor and Director of the Knox Art History Program
Senior Curator, Figge Art Museum
In September 1940, a young artist named George Rickey (1907-2002) accepted an appointment as a visiting artist-in-residence at Knox College. Rickey later gained critical renown as one of the leading modern abstract sculptors within the American post-war art scene, but in the early 1940s he was still a relatively unknown painter struggling to secure professional employment during the final meager years of the Great Depression. In being offered the residency at Knox, Rickey's primary task was to execute a large mural commission for the Oak Room, the men's dormitory dining hall in Seymour Hall (now Seymour Union). From January through June 1941, Rickey and a dedicated team of art students and artistically inclined faculty members labored on the mural, which Rickey titled The Offer of Education. A monumental wall painting on canvas, the figurative mural is devoted to the inspirational theme of the Western intellectual tradition flourishing at Knox College and depicts an illustrious grouping of great thinkers and scientists from the historical past extending enlightenment to Knox professors and students within a colorful, panoramic landscape.
A Mural Rescued
The mural adorned the wall of the Oak Room until 1960, when Seymour Union was being modernized and remodeled, and the painting was literally ripped from the wall and cut into frayed multiple pieces by construction workers who had been instructed to dispose of the canvas. Luckily, Professor Emeritus of Art Harland Goudie discovered the near-destruction of Rickey's painting and intervened to rescue the heavily damaged work, which then languished in the dusty confines of art storage for almost 50 years. After decades of consultation with leading painting and mural conservators, the ambitious and technically challenging project of restoring Rickey's The Offer of Education was finally realized in winter 2009. However, the story of the mural's creative genesis, its ill-fated obscurity and decline, and its eventual momentous restoration offers a fascinating glimpse into the artistic culture of the New Deal era and the institutional history of Knox's art program.
Rickey was born in South Bend, Indiana, but grew up in Scotland, where his father, an executive for the Singer Sewing Machine Company, had moved the family in 1913. While Rickey received a bachelor's degree in modern history in 1929 from Balliol College at Oxford University, he had also received art instruction at the Ruskin School of Drawing in Oxford and later studied painting under the Cubist master André Lhote at his Académie Montparnasse in Paris from 1929 to 1930. During his artistic sojourn in Paris, Rickey also attended painting classes taught by the Purist abstractionist Fernand Leger at the Académie Moderne. The importance of Rickey's training under both Lhote and Leger, particularly with regard to his later Knox mural, was the strong commitment of both modern masters to mural painting.
After Rickey's art studies abroad, he returned to the United States in 1934, and during the later 1930s, he taught at the Groton School but maintained a studio in New York City, where he mingled with other up-and-coming painters and was exposed to current avant-garde developments. In 1938, attempting to pursue his art more fully and establish himself as an art teacher, Rickey became affiliated with the Carnegie Corporation's Visiting Artists Program, which had been founded to bring visual artists, musicians, and literary writers to colleges in order to enrich their cultural offerings and to more fully expose students to the creative arts. Rickey had traveled to various colleges during 1938 and 1939 under the auspices of the Carnegie Corporation, where he gave lectures and public portrait painting demonstrations. Rickey first visited Knox College for several days in September 1938, as part of the Visiting Artists Program, and, in 1940, he was awarded a two semester position at the College through the extended Artist-in-Residence program.
Rickey and Knox
Rickey's appointment at Knox had been initiated by the College's president Carter Davidson, who was noted for administrative initiatives to advance the academic rigor, facilities, and cultural sophistication of the institution. Davidson was largely supportive of Rickey's mural project and his efforts to promote the central role of the visual arts within Knox's curriculum and educational life. The duties of Rickey's residency primarily involved serving as an adjunct to the art faculty, teaching classes, and guiding the students in the creation of a "beneficial work of art," which resulted in The Offer of Education.
At the time of Rickey's position at Knox, Harold Pyke was the sole professor of studio art, and instruction was limited to a small concentration of courses in drawing, design, and painting. Rickey was well-versed in the practice of mural painting. In 1938, he had painted a Works Progress Administration mural for the post office in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, and just prior to his appointment at Knox, he had been an artist-in-residence through the Carnegie Corporation at Olivet College in Olivet, Michigan, where he also produced a mural for the school. Rickey had originally intended to execute his Knox mural as a fresco painting on plaster, but the plasterer had incorrectly prepared the wall surface, and Rickey decided to paint in tempera on canvas. Rickey then proceeded to plan the theme and compositional design for the mural. In conducting his research for the project, Rickey went on numerous painting and drawing excursions into the rural countryside surrounding Galesburg and carefully studied Earnest Elmo Calkin's They Broke the Prairie (1937), a popular book chronicling the history of Galesburg and Knox College. Knox art students frequently accompanied Rickey in his station wagon on these artistic expeditions.
An Offer is Planned
Before executing the mural, Rickey produced a highly detailed preparatory cartoon in pencil and chalk on wrapping paper that measured 14-by-14 feet, the exact dimensions of the wall painting. The initial theme for the mural and the pictorial design were approved by Davidson, who was shown a color sketch and advised Rickey that he needed to incorporate more references to religion and to the College. As noted, the primary theme of The Offer of Education is the ritualized passing of knowledge from pre-eminent Western thinkers to Knox students. The naturalistic approach to the painting and the comprehensible narrative can be linked to the democratic ethos of New Deal art, which advocated that the signifying language and content of the visual arts should be relevant to the commonplace experience of a mass social audience.
The mural's primary design is a large X-shaped composition that is formed by two intersecting rows of figures. Although the work is executed in a representational figurative style, this dynamic and emphatic pictorial design creates a strong geometric pattern that emphasizes the broad, planar expanse of the mural wall surface and points towards the abstracted, geometric forms of Rickey's later modern kinetic sculptures. The figures stand within a dramatically tilted and compressed landscape space that
features fragmented, kaleidoscopic views of Old Main, the residential and commercial buildings of downtown Galesburg, and rolling, curving stretches of farmland that recall Regionalist vistas by Grant Wood.
Renewal, Tradition, Prosperity
The mural's narrative theme adheres to the symbolic conventions of New Deal iconography; however, Rickey ingeniously adapted these thematic elements to cultural concerns relevant to Knox College and Galesburg, which, like the rest of the country, was attempting to chart a stable course of progress following the financial and social crisis of the Depression. In the mural's far right stand figures Rickey described as the "universal minds of the past," Herodotus, Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci, and Louis Pasteur. These historical personages represent the foundational disciplines of a liberal arts education: history, literature, the visual arts, and science. They extend inspirational knowledge to prominent Knox professors of the day: Lee Furrow (biology); William Beauchamp (English); Proctor Sherwin (English); Hermann Muelder '27 (history); and Ray Miller (psychology). These teachers in turn pass on this rarefied offering of education to Knox students, who stand with expectant, symbolically enlarged outstretched hands.
Below this emblematic and idealized intellectual exchange is a pair of reclining figures, who appear to be roused from the "slumber of ignorance." The main doorway of Old Main can be glimpsed along the right edge of the mural, a possible visual allusion to the building's restoration in the mid-1930s. On each side of the mural are depicted the two main sources of economic revenue for the Galesburg region; agriculture is represented by a farmer on a tractor in the upper left, and in the opposite corner, rendered in a dramatic telescoped perspective, is a railroad train transporting commercial goods.
The major symbolic elements of the mural all relate to a prevalent theme within New Deal art, namely the affirmation of a sense of renewal and the continuity of tradition and prosperity. While the economic hardship and social instabilities of the Depression raised serious doubts concerning the future growth of the United States, Rickey's imagery reflects the goals of New Deal art to promote national recovery
by relying on the collective strengths of the regional community.
Like many Midwestern towns, Galesburg's farming and commercial industries were seriously weakened by the Depression, and Knox College had suffered falling enrollments and severe budget cuts. Perhaps reflecting these shared hardships, Rickey's mural features professors, students, a farming family, and a train engineer, symbolizing their common regional heritage and sense of unified purpose in promoting social recovery through the combined resources of agriculture, industry, and education. In fact, during the Depression, advanced education was promoted as a progressive force that could help to propel the United States towards a prosperous future. In New Deal art, the theme of youth culture frequently served as a hopeful emblem of cultural potential and national progress.
Rickey's effort to involve the entire Knox community in the creation of the mural not only reflects the radical egalitarian spirit of New Deal artistic ideology, but also his commitment to the College's principles concerning the active experiential and interdisciplinary basis of a liberal arts education. In his report on his artist's residency, Rickey explained that a student's work on the mural exposed them to such diverse subjects as the social issues of the rural community, the civic history of murals in Western culture, and the engineering of modern railroad trains. Moreover, the complex technical process of working on a public mural also demanded that students experiment with creative methods and social applications for art not possible within a studio classroom.
The site of the mural's development became a popular meeting place for students, faculty, and interested townspeople, who chatted with the artist as he sat perched on a scaffold, watching him methodically apply layers of tempera over areas of green and blue under paint. One of the many Knox students who assisted Rickey with the mural was Beatrice Farwell Duncan '42, professor emerita of art history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, who later became a widely respected specialist in French 19th-century painting.
A Mural Restored
It may have been Rickey's careful technical execution of the mural that allowed it to be successfully restored in 2008 and 2009 at the Chicago Conservation Center, which is the nation's leading laboratory specializing in mural conservation. The restoration process was a painstaking effort that involved having to reassemble and secure the seven cut pieces of the mural; the reconstruction was so meticulous that the seams of the separate sections are barely discernable. Careful in-painting was necessary to restore areas of pigment, and the surface was meticulously treated and cleaned in order to return the color to its original vibrancy and to protect the mural from future wear and damage. Rather than attach the painting to a stretcher, a special supportive backing on flexible canvas was devised that would allow for the mural to be rolled and transported in a packing tube and to facilitate its easy mounting and de-installation. Once the mural was fully conserved, it was placed on long-term loan to the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa, where it is the impressive centerpiece of the museum's newly created Midwest Regionalist gallery. I had the distinct pleasure in fall 2009 to witness Harland Goudie standing in the gallery, viewing the reconstituted and restored painting he had saved so long ago. At the time of Rickey's departure from Knox in June 1941, he lamented the lack of a substantive studio art program and a gallery where students could study and be inspired by important historical examples of fine art. Today, Knox still lacks a secure art gallery or museum but hopes to establish a campus gallery at some point. Perhaps then Rickey's mural can return home.