Acrylic, 108″ x 360″, 2011-12, Richard B. Russell Special Collections Library, University of Georgia
Perhaps the most striking element of the Russell Library’s central gallery is mural on the back wall. Titled, “Doors” the work tells the story of modern Georgia politics from 1900 to the present (moving from left to right), and depicts many of the major figures and events that shaped the state during this period. The final section (on the far right) of the mural shows staff members from the Russell Library engaged in their day-to-day operations in the archives: processing collections, filming oral histories, teaching students, and more. All this is done to collect, preserve, and provide access to their materials.
Although the impact of the work should derive from its sum, and not a panoply of people and episodes, it will be helpful in reading the work for the viewer to connect and identify the themes, individuals, events that provide the context for this work.
First: “doors.” I needed to work with the architectural fact of a real door in the wall—actually a fire code exit door from the re-creation of Richard Russell’s senatorial office in an adjoining room. An image of a younger Russell in his Winder law office door suggested that he be depicted in the door; and gradually that specific door became a metaphor for other doors: doors to the future, through integration, doors into archives where past informs the present and future, and more.
In the upper areas of the mural, the viewer moves from left to right from the agrarian past, the cotton-crowing era, into the industrialization of the South: the cotton mills, then Atlanta as a rail hub and cotton shipping city. Then come rural electrification, World War II (“buy war bonds”), modern agriculture with irrigation; the port of Savannah (with the Richard B. Russell Bridge!), the Gold Dome of Georgia’s capitol, flanked by the controversy of what should be the state’s flag; a modern airport and Atlanta at night, a 21st century city.
Below this time flow, again from left to right: the horrendous Atlanta race riots of 1906 (best shown in a French illustrated newspaper), with W. E. B. Du Bois as the moral conscience of the time. Politicians Clark Howell and rival Hoke Smith were part of the racist tone of the era, also manifested by Tom Watson, a populist and demagogue. This era was marked by the re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan. Watson exploited the bigotry that attended the case of Leo Frank, shown with his wife, Lucille, and Governor Slaton, who was attacked for commuting Frank’s sentence before the latter was lynched.
This was the era of child labor, shown by “babes in the mill” (as one song has it) and the time (1920) when Socialist Eugene V. Debs ran for President from the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, garnering nearly half a million votes. Fiddlin’ John Carson (along with his daughter, Moonshine Kate) was a pioneer country recording artist who performed at rallies for Gene Talmadge, shown addressing a crowd. I sometimes use the device of picture-within-picture, as when the “three governors controversy” is shown in a movie newsreel, in which Ellis Arnall is blocked in his attempt to enter the State Capitol.
Civil rights and integration marked the second half of the twentieth century: shown are a march for rights for African Americans, an all-white voting place succeeded by an integrated voting line; young UGA journalist Bill Shipp at work; Reverend Martin Luther King Sr., “Daddy King,” who was influential by working behind the scenes with establishment politicians to effect integration; and Charlayne Hunter (Gault) and Hamilton Holmes, entering the University of Georgia campus as its first black students.
The mid-century was marked by the growth of Georgia’s poultry industry, shown in image-in-image depictions of D. W. Brooks; and the growing presence of women in industry, shown by trailblazer for equity in the workplace for women, Lorena Weeks.
To the left of the door, where the viewer sees the young Richard Russell, a man to become one of the most powerful, complex, and controversial figures in American politics, is an ascending crowd of many—not all!—of the important political figures in Georgia politics from the late twentieth century to the present (introducing them is one person who is not a politician, my friend, folk artist and traditional singer Bonnie Loggins, who has met Jimmy Carter, who told her, “I like to hug these mountain women.”) The others: Herman Talmadge, Ernest Vandiver, Jimmy Carter, Bo Callaway, Cathy Cox, Zell Miller, Dean Rusk, Mack Mattingly, Martin Luther King, Jr., Zell Miller, Roy Barnes, Max Cleland, John Lewis, Julian Bond, Sam Nunn, Andrew Young. Above the door are models of the aircraft prototypes that were central to Richard Russell’s position as Chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee.
And to the right of the door I thought it necessary to show the ongoing work of the staff of the Russell Library: Jill Severn, talking to middle school students who represent the future of Georgia; media and oral history archivists Craig Breaden and Christian Lopez filming an interview by Bob Short of Laughlin McDonald of the American Civil Liberties Union; Director Sheryl Vogt at her desk; Jan Levinson examining new archival material; archivist Kat Stein shelving boxes of archival material. The artist looks on, hoping not to have missed much. Oh, the figure in the flat-screen monitor is Senator Wyche Fowler, who defended the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities on the floor of the Senate.
It should be evident to the viewer that I included figures whom I personally admire, such as Fowler, as well as those I do not—the effort was to show the men and women who lived and made the history of their times, the bad and the good, the regressive and the progressive…
The mural is executed in Golden matte acrylics. Preliminary drawings were begun during the summer of 2011, and the actual work on the wall was executed from October of that year until early fall of 2012. A large preliminary drawing was gridded off, then enlarged and modified in charcoal to a grid on the wall, onto which art students helped me marouflage (adhere) and prime a large expanse of canvas. The composition was then under-painted in earth colors and white on a ground of red ochre (the color of Georgia clay, and a small amount of clay was actually used); then over-painted in full local color to completion.
Thanks to the Russell staff for helping with source material, suggestions, and encouragement; and to the staff of the Russell building for helping in practical ways and tolerating the disruption and mess of mural painting.
“The Art of Art Rosenbaum remains a local treasure around Athens” — Sean Mills, Examiner.com, May 22, 2013