After more than 40 years of being shielded from the public eye, UT is displaying a notoriously controversial work of art painted by a woman whose time in Knoxville is as shrouded in intrigue as her infamous painting itself.
"The Singing Mural," as it has come to be known, was painted by New York artist Marion Greenwood and first unveiled in the University Center Ballroom in 1955. Years of civil rights-motivated debate, and later vandalism at the hands of Vietnam War-protesting students, led to the work being paneled over. Now, it is unveiled once again at the UT Downtown Gallery until August 9.
"The committee that made the decision to panel over it to save it in 1972 said, 'You know, one day it will be uncovered and we'll show it to a new generation that can see it in a more historical context,'" said Mike Berry, manager of the UT Downtown Gallery and curator of the exhibit. "I think that time is now."
Greenwood painted the mural with the intent of representing the history of music in Tennessee after she was brought to UT as an artist-in-residence in 1954. The fabled controversy over the piece, which arose nearly 15 years after the mural's installation, stemmed from a debate over what some believed to be potentially racist qualities—one of the mural's 28 figures, in particular, was argued to depict a cotton-picking slave.
"The fact of the matter is, when she painted this in 1954, Knoxville was still segregated; UT was an all-white campus," Berry said. "So for her to come and have a third of the mural feature African Americans ... when you put that in context, that's pretty progressive."
"To most modern-day viewers, the cause of former controversy is lost," Berry said.
"We've had overwhelmingly positive feedback on this," he said. "And ever since the mural was unpanelled, I've been wanting to curate a show about Greenwood to show some of her other work and show viewers more about her as an artist."
Beyond the visually dominating "Singing Mural" and a second mural painted for the Federal Arts Project in 1940, smaller paintings and sketches by Greenwood adorn the gallery walls. They give testimony to the life of an exceptional woman dedicated to representing other cultures and, especially, the reality of the downtrodden, said researcher Joanne Mulcahy.
Mulcahy, who is currently writing a biography on Greenwood, traveled to Knoxville from Oregon for the exhibit's official opening on June 6, an event she described as a "moving experience."
"I think her broad feeling for the world was both for women and children, but also just for people who had suffered or been oppressed," Mulcahy said. "She was essentially very humanistic."
This humanitarian drive, as well as her interest in other cultures, led Greenwood to exotic locales to study and interpret life there. Mulcahy first encountered one of Greenwood's murals in Mexico, where the artist had been living and working alongside Diego Rivera in the 1930s.
"She was way ahead of her time in terms of her independence and her willingness to make her way in the world alone," Mulcahy said. "She went to Mexico and took on this government commission (to paint murals) when she was 24-years-old ... she spent three months going out to villages by canoe or horseback by herself."
After spending time similarly in Haiti and China, it is for as-of-yet undisclosed reasons why Greenwood accepted the invitation to come to Knoxville in 1954. While here, however, she became a favorite amongst the students, some of whom posed as models while she painted the Singing Mural into the wee hours of the morning.
"All the students thought she was really hip, that she was really cool, because she was from New York and had lived all over the world," Berry said. "She was very sophisticated, but while some artists like to be reclusive and remote, she was exactly the contrary and very personable."
The memory of her persona, as well as of her artistic work, will be celebrated at the UT Downtown Gallery along with special events during the next two First Fridays. The gallery is also open every Wednesday through Saturday and is free to the public.