During a career that spanned forty years, New York artist Marion Greenwood created paintings, drawings, and prints that championed the lives of indigenous people she encountered during travels to Haiti, India, Africa, Mexico, and other far-flung locales. In 1954, she came to Knoxville when the University of Tennessee commissioned her to create a mural for the new Carolyn P. Brown University Center ballroom. The resulting work, The History of Tennessee, stands as East Tennessee’s largest, most important, and most controversial figural mural painting. Greenwood was selected by a search committee headed by art department chairman C. Kermit “Buck” Ewing, and was offered a one-year teaching assignment as well. After considering many themes for the mural, Greenwood decided her work would pay tribute to the state’s musical heritage. She worked on the mural largely at night, and recruited university students and faculty as models for many of the 28 figures that would be featured in the completed work. By day, Greenwood taught art and traveled across the state to get ideas for the mural, visiting moonshine suppliers in the east and dockworkers in the west.
Painted on a continuous 30-foot length of canvas, Greenwood’s composition illustrates the distinctive music of the state’s main divisions—the delta blues of West Tennessee, country music of Middle Tennessee, and religious music of East Tennessee. On the left, Memphis Beale Street jazz musicians play for dancers on a background of riverboats and the booming cotton industry. To their right, a fieldworker sings to a young girl as he rests with his cotton sack. In Middle Tennessee, a country square dance takes place in a barn amid bundles of drying tobacco and stalks of sorghum. Continuing to the right, the mural depicts East Tennessee basket weaving and cotton spinning. A young boy plays the harmonica while a mother covers her child with a homemade quilt. At the end of the mural, surrounded by mountain laurel and rhododendron, a group sings hymns in front of a clapboard church.
The completed “Singing Mural,” as it was commonly known, was unveiled in the University Center’s ballroom on June 5, 1955 before a commencement crowd of 300 or so people. Records indicate it was well received by university representatives, and Greenwood considered it to be her best work in the United States. The mural remained on view for 15 years without objection. During those years, however, former UT president Andy Holt found it to be a distracting backdrop for his speeches, and had a curtain placed in front of the mural before each of his addresses.
Greenwood’s decision to include African Americans in a mural dedicated to the history of Tennessee was a progressive and daring move during the 1950s Jim Crow era. However, the world changed rapidly in the following two decades and what was almost certainly a bold insistence on diversity and inclusion came to be seen as something quite different by a new generation. By the 1970s, amid the political unrest sweeping through American colleges and universities, Greenwood’s mural came to be regarded as a blatant symbol of racism by many students in UT’s civil rights organizations. As the only work of art on campus depicting people of color, its images of what appeared to be happy black folk singing and playing jazz instruments were seen as a sharp reminder of Jim Crow and a blow to African-American dignity and self worth.
In the course of student unrest in the spring of 1970, the mural was vandalized by unknown parties. The painting was restored, and kept under guard. Responding to the threat of vandalism and growing criticism about the depiction of African-Americans in the mural, in 1972 a wall was built in front of it and The History of Tennessee disappeared from public view for more than more than three decades.
Although it was hidden away for a generation, Greenwood’s mural and the controversy surrounding it were never completely forgotten. In 2006, following a successful two-year effort by a team of UT students and administrators, the mural was uncovered for public viewing for the first time in several decades. In 2008, planning began for a new, larger student center on campus, and by 2010 it was announced that the Carolyn P. Brown Memorial University Center would be razed. Discussions ensued about safely removing Greenwood’s mural, and identifying a location for its long-term display. In 2013, a national conservation firm was hired to clean the mural, remove it from the cinderblock wall of the University Center, and place it on a special apparatus designed to store the mural safely until a permanent home could be identified. Since the new university center design contained no suitable space for the mural, administrators explored off-campus display options and approached the KMA as an ideal venue. In 2014, shortly after the mural was featured in a special display at the University’s Downtown Gallery, the university and the KMA reached an agreement through which the university retains ownership of the mural, but has placed it in the KMA’s care on long-term loan. This insures that visitors for years to come will have access to the mural and can assess its history, significance, and meaning, and view it in the context of contemporary artistic developments in Knoxville and the region.
Greenwood was born in Brooklyn on April 6, 1909. Considered a child prodigy, she left high school at 15 after winning a scholarship to study at New York’s Art Students League, which at that time was one of the most progressive art schools in America. One of her mentors at the league was John Sloan, whose paintings of city scenes reflected his belief that daily life should inspire works of art.
Greenwood traveled to the Southwest to study and to paint pictures of the local Native Americans. From there, in 1932, she went to Mexico, where she began to paint murals depicting the life of everyday people. Diego Rivera, head of the Mexican government’s mural program, noticed her work and hired her to work on a massive mural project in the center of Mexico City. Greenwood's section of that mural, a militant depiction of the exploitation of rural agricultural workers, was widely admired throughout Mexico, and she became something of a local icon. Back in the United States, Greenwood received several New Deal commissions, among them a mural for a post office in Crossville, Tennessee, that endorsed the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Blueprint for Living (1940), frescos (since painted over) for a housing project in Brooklyn, New York.
Although Greenwood had largely abandoned murals for easel painting by 1945, her themes remained the same. As she explained in a New York World Telegram article in November 1944, her interest was not in “fussing with cute and fancy nudes and pretty-pretty things,” but rather in depicting “the life of America, whether it be industry, farming or just plain people.” Greenwood did paint two murals after the war: the first, The History of Tennessee (1954-55); the second, Tribute to Women (1965), created at Syracuse University, was dedicated to women throughout the world.
Greenwood's work earned her many honors and awards, including second prize at the Carnegie Institute exhibition of 1944 for the painting Mississippi Girl (1943); the National Association of Women Artists’ Grumbacker Prize (1959); and election to the National Academy of Design (1959). She spent the last decades of her life primarily in New York City and at an art colony in Woodstock, New York. Greenwood died in 1970 from injuries suffered in an automobile accident.
The KMA wishes to acknowledge Fred Moffatt, Jack Neely, and Greenwood biographer Carol Kort for providing the source material for this text.
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