UALR preserves historic Arkansas mural

Joe Jone's "The Struggle of the South" mural

In 1935, noted American painter Joe Jones depicted the lives of Southern sharecroppers in his thought-provoking mural, “The Struggle of the South.” 

The mural wrapped around the walls of the dining commons at Commonwealth College in Mena, Arkansas, where students met to discuss social and political issues. The mural imagery depicts sharecropping, coal mining and lynching and was described in news accounts of the day as representing “The Struggle in the South.”

Jones lived from 1909 to 1963 and worked amid the poverty of the Great Depression. His vibrant paintings achieved national acclaim in the 1930s and showcase the heart of American struggle — urban and rural, black and white, rich and poor.

Commonwealth College closed in 1940, and the mural was taken from campus. In 1984, UALR Archives purchased the 44-by-8-foot mural in 29 pieces in 1984, after it was found in an old house south of Fort Smith. Thus began a decades-long effort to preserve the historic mural, according to Brad Cushman, director of UALR Art Gallery.  

Restoration work began in 2010, and a piece of the mural was displayed at the Joe Jones: Painter of the American Scene exhibit at the Saint Louis Art Museum from 2010 to 2011. Following the exhibit, the UALR Gallery Program successfully obtained grant funding from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council to complete the restoration of the mural.

Helen Houp Fine Arts Conservation Studio in Dallas completed work on the mural. UALR is working to raise funding for a permanent exhibition space for the mural on the main campus.

UALR’s effort to restore the mural was recently featured in AY Magazine. For more information, check out AY Magazine’s feature article, “Joe Jones and a Place of Civic Reflection.”  

A Nov. 5, 2016, talk by Cushman about the restoration effort also inspired another AY Magazine feature article about the history of Commonwealth College and the school’s ties to former Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus.

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