Take Note

February 19, 2003 1 min read

Art History

Whitewashed and dusty, many of the forgotten murals in Chicago public schools looked like nothing more than art projects gone awry.

But Barry Bauman, the founder of the Chicago Conservation Center, and several of his staff members saw more than just junk in the neglected paintings. They viewed the murals as a potential treasure trove of meaningful historical artwork.

In 1994, 437 murals painted by professional artists during the early 20th century’s Progressive era and the Works Progress Administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal were found hidden away in 68 Chicago schools.

Now, most of the murals have been restored and unveiled, giving many disregarded muralists the glory they never enjoyed during their lifetimes.

Chicago students have staged plays, constructed Web sites, and created their own art projects inspired by the murals, said Heather Becker, the conservation center’s vice president and co-owner.

Rudolph Weisenborn’s “Contemporary Chicago,” created in 1936, was one of the recovered murals. Weisenborn was considered “Chicago’s Picasso,” and his mural was the only piece of abstract art in the collection.

Ms. Becker researched the history of the murals and has now written a book recording the discovery and restoration. The book, Art for the People: The Rediscovery and Preservation of Progressive- and WPA-Era Murals in the Chicago Public Schools, 1904-1943, was released last month by Chronicle Books. It includes a catalog of all the school district’s known murals, where the paintings are located, their artists, and their condition before restoration.

Through her research, Ms. Becker found that not all of the murals that were painted have been recovered, however. About 50 of them, including large free-standing paintings, were either destroyed, lost, or stolen over the years.

“People did not realize what they were,” she said.

—Hattie Brown