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New Deal Art in Dayton, Ohio

photo courtesty of Virginia Burroughs

  • Article by Virginia Burroughs for the Dayton Voice – 1998 on the missing murals of MacFarlane Middle School, Dayton, OH
  • Update on the MacFarlane Middle School murals in danger by Virginia Burroughs
  • Article by Benjamin Kline of the Dayton Daily News – 6/11/04 on the restoration of the murals and their installation in the Dayton Art Institute!
  • Article by Benjamin Kline of the Dayton Daily News – 7/10/04 (pg B1), “Mural from old Dunbar installed Depression-era art goes up at Dayton Art Institute”



Photographs of the restored mural currently installed in the Dayton Art Institute, 456 Belmonte Park North Dayton, Ohio 45406 (937) 223-5277


WPA Artists in Dayton

In room 302 at MacFarlane Middle School on South Paul Laurence Dunbar Street, Sandra Snow’s junior high math students work beneath a wall-size mural portraying young African-Americans listening to the words of Frederick Douglass, who stands preaching in the center of the painting. At the top of the mural are the words from a Langston Hughes’ poem, Youth. “We have to-morrow, Bright before us, Like a flame, yesterday a night-gone thing, A sundown name, And dawn today, Broad arch above the road we came, we March!” Douglass Inspiring the Youth of the Negro Race was painted at the school in 1933 – when the building housed Dunbar High School – by a white Dayton Art Institute student, Cletus Alexander. Mrs. Snow’s math room was Dunbar’s Choral Room in 1933. Another DAI student, Bruno Peiser, painted the panel “ornament” that encompasses the poem. Students who have class in Mrs. Snow’s room are among the few remaining beneficiaries of local WPA art. During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was established to employ and keep alive many Americans. Under this program, the Federal Art Project (FAP) employed 11,000 artists and art teachers between 1933-43. Alexander was one of those artists, as was Stanley Beatty, the only African-American artist to participate in the local projects. The Schools for All Races at Alexandria and Timbucktoo was the historic subject matter for two murals painted by Beatty around the school’s entranceway. Timbucktoo, known as Tombouctou today, was an ancient African town in Mali, near the Niger River, and Alexandria is a seaport in Egypt at the west end of the Nile Delta; both were known for their advanced culture and education, and Timbucktoo was believed to have been the site of the first “college.” Ironically, these murals, which had much to say about African influence on education, were removed in the mid-1980′s because, according to one staff member, “The kids would wait in the entranceway for the bell to ring, and they’d play with the murals. They were in pretty bad shape, so the principal had them taken down.” However, no one seems to know whether they were stored or thrown away. Beatty graduated from the DAI and secured a job at the Art Institute, but died young. Siegfried Weng, coordinator of the WPA art projects in Dayton, was saddened to hear that Beatty’s murals had been removed, and probably destroyed. “Stanley was a very talented artist,” he noted. Weng was the director of the School of the Dayton Art Institute during the WPA years of 1933-38, as well as the regional coordinator for WPA art projects. Under his guidance, 78 pieces of art were commissioned for 44 WPA projects at various buildings and public sites in the Miami valley. Today, 93-year-old Weng lives in Evansville, Indiana and still recalls the WPA program and its local projects and artists. “Someone wrote me from Washington, appointing me to that job,” Weng recalled. “They gave me a secretary, and my job was to design projects and assign artists – whatever was needed.” Although ideas for the projects may have come from community leaders to meet special needs of the time, the artists were selected from the staff and students at the School of the Dayton Art Institute. Primary goals of the WPA art projects were to make art a part of daily life, to preserve the skills of older artists and pass them on to younger artists. Weng sought to carry out that mission with his assignments. He recalls one local artist and part-time DAI student, Max Seifert, a retired teacher who had lost his savings in the stock market crash; the local WPA arts program provided him and his wife with money for basic needs. In return, the artist provided the Dayton Public Library with a set of paintings of the various tree species in Ohio. “Did you know that Ohio has more kinds of trees than all of Europe?” asked Weng. Another project that documented our landscape and “integrated art into daily life” was a set of 12 lithographs depicting wildflowers of this vicinity, done by Lenore Bunn for Springfield High School. Other projects provided Dayton school children with visual aids – in the form of paintings, sets of prints, and murals – to enhance learning in a time before educational posters were as plentiful or readily available for schools as they are today. “The WPA helped many needy artists and it gave some really good artists a chance to do something in the public eye,” Weng said. “Many names that were famous afterwards were given a good boost through that program.” Perhaps Dayton’s WPA artists weren’t among those who became so “famous,” at least on a national level; however, they did create work that, at the time, was appreciated and was certainly representative of WPA projects around the country. In addition, the work often documented historical events of our community and sought to educate citizens. James Buffenberger painted panels of the Mound Builders and the Greenville treaty signing for Oakwood Jr. High School; Edward Hageman made a watercolor map of Ohio that emphasized the state’s Indian tribes; well-known local sculptor Robert Koepnick did three terracotta Dayton pioneer figures for Dayton schools; and Edward Burroughs, later to become dean of the School of the Dayton art Institute, did a series of lithographs depicting local industrial activities – including suck well-known businesses as Frigidaire, Dayton Rubber Company, National Cash Register, and Armco Iron – which were printed in editions and presented to local high schools and libraries. Social and ethnic concerns were also addressed in local work; the murals done by Alexander and Beatty portrayed greatness found in African-American heritage and culture. Their murals were among five mural projects that were done in the Miami Valley. Unfortunately, however, the fate of Beatty’s murals was not uncommon; in fact, a tremendous amount of work done for the schools and for the Dayton -Montgomery County Public Library was either destroyed or ‘lost.” Robert J. Smith painted six mural panels of symbolic figures – Sculpture, Architecture and Painting, Music, Prose, Poetry, Science and Philosophy – for the walls of the library’s east reading Room.*(see editorial note below: these murals have been found!). He also did a mural titled Scene at the Soldier Home for the library entrance. Joseph Recher assisted him in these projects, which were destroyed when the old library building was torn down in 1962. “Bill Chait, the library director at the time, was not interested in putting art in the new building,” said Nancy Horlacher, who works in Special Collections at the library. “He and the board members divested itself of all of the art in the old building; they wanted a modern building with no art. The murals probably were destroyed with the building.” In cities throughout the country, this was the common fate of all too many WPA art projects. Many were never inventoried or acknowledged with plaques for future generations to appreciate, and many artists assigned projects were selected on the basis of financial need – not talent. In addition, the latter years of the WPA and FAP were fraught with charges of “communist overtones” and numerous projects felt to be among this category were purposely destroyed. Most, however, were simply discarded or became victims of neglect, and only a few representative pieces of that historic venue of public art – both national and local – remain. However, in addition to Alexander’s mural at MacFarlane, a mural painted by E. Paul Wilhelm for Greenville High School has been spared. Wilhelm, a German immigrant, had initially been hired by the art institute to paint the front of the old Chinese temple exhibit space and other decorative beams. “He had excellent European training in the decorative arts,” recalled Weng, “and he came at a time when we needed his work.” Wilhelm also taught at the school and was fascinated by the WPA muralists. “In our painting class, he had us design murals,” said Helen Pinkney, a DAI curator who attended the school from 1932-36. “A few of the better students, like Stanley Beatty and Cletus Alexander, actually got to paint theirs through the WPA program.” Wilhelm’s WPA murals for Greenville High School – now the junior high school – depict the history of Ohio, the Northwest Territory, and the signing of the Greenville Treaty. Mark Weedy, current principal of the school, notes that, “I pass them every day in the cafeteria.” The Greenville school board had the murals restored in 1976. “Over the years, the students had punctured the murals, and there was other damage,” said school board member Lydia Sindelar. “We had an auction and bake sales to raise the $700 for restoration, and we hired a couple from Columbus to do the work.” Today, the murals are protected by Plexiglas and are accompanied by information on their history and the artist. “We also wanted to move them to the high school,” added Sindelar, “but they’re so huge, and we never got it done.” Wilhelm’s WPA work went beyond Dayton and he played a role in a piece featured in the traveling exhibition In the Spirit of Resistance: African-American Modernists and the Mexican Muralist School that was recently on display at the Dayton Art Institute. In 1932-33, Wilhelm traveled to Detroit to meet the famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, while Rivera worked on his mural Detroit Industry for the Detroit Institute of Arts. From this visit, Wilhelm volunteered to work with Rivera on the mural at the New York Workers’ School in New York City. And, he arranged for a visit by two of Rivera’s assistants on that project – Lucienne Bloch and Stephan Dinitroff – to Dayton in January, 1934 to talk to DAI students (Pinkney was in attendance) about Rivera’s work, especially the New School mural and its infamous predecessor at Radio City, which was halted due to its inclusion of a portrait of Lenin. Wilhelm was fired from the DAI that year for what board members decided was his “socialist” subject matter, often common in WPA art – but Weng continued to defend the artist and his work. Another local artist who worked with one of the WPA’s most famous artists and who also had ties to the DAI’s recent exhibition is the late Robert Neal. Neal, a well-known African-American Dayton painter until his death in 1989, did not live in Dayton when he was involved with the WPA. A native of Atlanta, he started painting under the guidance of the famous African-American muralist Hale Woodruff – represented in the DAI exhibition – in Atlanta in the 1930′s. “He began his studies when he was 15, and his lessons cost 50 cents a day,” said Neal’s widow, Alberta Smith Neal. “When he was about 18, Mr. Woodruff wanted him to enter a big show, but Bob didn’t have the right clothes and couldn’t afford to attend the opening. “Mr. Woodruff rented him a limousine and a tuxedo so he could go, and Bob ended up taking first place in the show – his painting was judged to be better than his teacher’s (Woodruff).” Neal moved to Dayton in the early 1940′s, after the WPA program had ended, but many local artists recall his stories of Woodruff and his own work with the WPA murals. “Bob was Woodruff’s understudy for the Amistad murals at Talladega College in Alabama,” said Michael Sampson, local artist and coordinator for public communication at the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center at Wilberforce University. The murals were painted in 1939, just before Neal came to Dayton, and Sampson has a copy of a letter written by Woodruff to his biographers that clearly establishes that “Bob actually did the cartoons (under drawings) for the murals, and he posed for all the hand drawings and some of the figures done in the mural.” Photographs of the mural series, titled The Mutiny Aboard the Amistad 1839, were on display in the DAI exhibition, and those who knew Neal could recognize his long expressive hands on the men in the paintings; in addition, many of the figures – and even some of the faces – share the same features of Neal’s self-portraits. In Dayton, Neal continued to paint, and some recall his mural that decorated the Lakeside Grill (now the Crescendo) on Germantown St. The club is still operating, but the mural has been painted over. None of the local WPA artists in this article are with us today, and, unfortunately, neither is most of their WPA work. Undoubtedly, not all of the work produced under the auspices of the WPA could be labeled as “great,” but the WPA and the art that it spawned is part of America’s – and Dayton’s – history, and its goal to integrate art into daily life played an important role in our public art legacy. It is ironic that, in just half a century, so much work that was intended to preserve local heritage has been destroyed and forgotten by the “future generations” which it was intended to inspire. Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from such devastation is that it is imperative to preserve and document public art. After all, it is our public art that, in part, documents and preserves our times, our history, and our heritage. Copyright 1998 Virginia Burroughs



Update on the MacFarlane Middle School murals in danger:
by Virginia Burroughs

Although a community effort in Dayton, OH recently saved a surviving Public Works of Art (PWAP) mural in the closed MacFarlane Middle School Building, mural project committee members are looking for two missing murals that were done for the school’s entranceway in 1933-34. PWAP was a state-funded pilot program for the national Work Progress Administration¹s Fine Arts Program, which followed.

The murals were removed in the 1980′s, and it was thought they had been pitched; however, recent information leads committee members to believe that they were taken from the building by a teacher for restoration soon after they had been removed from the walls, and were not returned.

The importance of these murals, in addition to being among the local PWAP projects done in 1933-34, is that they were the only projects done by an African-American, specifically for Dunbar High School, which was the city’s first all-black high school.

The artist, Stanley Beatty, had a tragic life, according to the program¹s coordinator and former DAI school director Siegfried Weng. His young wife had died in an elevator accident at Rike¹s Department Store. His mother was still dependent on him when he died in his forties.

According to Weng in a 1973 correspondence, “Most (of Beatty¹s tragedies) from man¹s inhumanity to man, especially indifference or overt cruelty of the white man – the waste of a fine talent and man.”

Although Beatty graduated from the School of the Dayton Art Institute, and Weng said he had “considerable ability,” in the segregated time in which he lived, he could not teach at the DAI, but secured a job as a custodian there. He was still working when he died.

The Schools for All Races at Alexandria and Timbucktoo were the subject matter for his two missing murals, although the only photo that still exists is one of the school at Alexandria. As PWAP projects, they now fall under the federal government¹s General Services Administration (GSA) guidelines, which says they cannot be sold. However, they can be donated to an art museum, or, in this case, returned to the school district for which they were done.

Anyone with information on the whereabouts of these murals can contact Michael Shaffer, Supervisor of Fine Arts for the school district, at (937) 542-3242, or Tuliza Fleming, Assistant Curator of American Art at the DAI, (937) 223-5277. People with information – or the murals – will not have to give their names. The only goal of the mural project committee is to have the murals returned.



DAI to display historic WPA mural Artwork saved from Dayton’s MacFarlane school
By Benjamin Kline, Dayton Daily News 6/11/04

Saving the 1933 mural on the wall of a MacFarlane Middle School classroom looked like a stretch a year ago. Now it’s merely a matter of a stretcher.

The 120-by-266-inch canvas painting, “Douglass Inspiring the Youth of the Negro Race,” has been saved, spruced up and is nearly ready for a trip from the Cleveland Intermuseum Conservation Association to the Dayton Art Institute.

DAI, which agreed to display the mural on loan from Dayton Public Schools, provided $4,000 to put it on a custom-made stretcher, a rigid wood support that will protect the old fabric and make it easier to move.

The artwork is expected to return to Dayton in July and will be installed at DAI’s Harry Shaw Gothic Cloister, the largest space available.

As possibly the city’s last surviving example of Depression-era Works Progress Administration design, the mural is “a very important part of art,” DAI Director Alex Nyerges said. “The whole business of mural painting and of WPA works has vanished from the landscape, figuratively and literally. That this magnificent mural still exists is almost unbelievable.”

The DAI location means the painting can be seen by an estimated 400,000 visitors annually, far more than would see it in a classroom, it was noted.

At MacFarlane, the original Dunbar High School, the mural was on the north wall of the second-floor choir room. The old building has been closed and will be torn down as part of Dayton schools’ rebuilding program.

A committee headed by Virginia Burroughs, a Dayton teacher, worked out details of the loan agreement, signed by school officials in April and by Nyerges May 14.

Culture Works acted as fiscal agent while the Dayton Area School Employees Federal Credit Union raised funds. The total cost will be about $23,000.

The museum will have custody of the mural for an indefinite period.

The federal General Services Administration is listed as “responsible for the work,” a bit of legal historical trivia not affecting the loan by the schools to the art museum.



“Mural from old Dunbar installed Depression-era art goes up at Dayton Art Institute”
By Benjamin Kline, Dayton Daily News, 7/10/04 – pg. B1

DAYTON | It wasn’t the typical picture-framing shop job. Strips of finished poplar molding were laid out in a 10-by-24-foot rectangle Friday morning on the floor of the Dayton Art Institute’s Gothic Cloister. On a scaffold along the south wall, 14 feet up, art conservator Per Knutas was carefully ironing wrinkles and bulges out of a colorful painted canvas, as if smoothing out a precious quilt or bedspread. But this piece of fragile canvas is one of a kind and probably the last of its kind in Dayton.

The 1933 mural, (Frederick) Douglass Inspiring the Youth of the Negro Race, was rescued from a dingy wall in a darkened classroom at the old MacFarlane School, which is to be demolished as part of Dayton schools’ rebuilding plan. The MacFarlane building was the original Dunbar High School and the mural, painted by DAI student Cletus Alexander, was in the former choir room upstairs. The painting is believed the last Works Progress Administration-sponsored art in the city. (Greenville Junior High, 41 miles northwest, has WPA historical murals.)

Community members raised more than $20,000 through the school employees credit union and family of Frederic C. MacFarlane, Dunbar’s first principal, to restore and conserve the painting. It was taken down in August and hauled in a big tube to the Intermuseum Conservation Association of Cleveland. Dayton school board members approved its being housed and displayed at the art institute, where both school and nonschool personnel can enjoy it.

Knutas said the mural is now backed by a synthetic fiber that prevents it from “moving” with changes in humidity, contractions and expansions that harm art works. “You might say we’re trying to relax the canvas,” Knutas said. His iron was turned to a low heat, below 150 degrees, because the mounting adhesive is activated at higher temperatures. The old varnish, badly discolored, had to be cleaned away six times, Knutas said. Student graffiti marred the lower part of the mural. A lower corner had been cut away, but was restored. The soft yellows, browns and reds look fresh and new, but not too noisy. The muted look is typical of Depression-era works of this kind, said DAI’s Tuliza Fleming, curator of American art.

Fleming said she is enthusiastic about the mural; she’s working to enhance the museum’s black subject or artist representations. (In this case, the artist was white, but the subject is black youth.) Contact Benjamin Kline at 225-2222.


  • Where: Dayton Art Institute Gothic Cloister.
  • When: Daily 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. except Thursday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
  • Admission: Free.