As curator Brad Cushman said at the unveiling of the Joe Jones mural, “There is absolutely no reason this mural should still exist.” But it does. And now fully restored Jones’s 1935 mural The Struggle in the South is a centerpiece of the new UA Little Rock Downtown Campus in the heart of the River Market.
First painted in the 1935 to be placed at Commonwealth College in Mena, it spent many years lining two closets in a house after it had been taken down from its original location. When that house was being torn down, someone called Bobby Roberts because they thought it might be something worth saving.
Dr. Roberts drove to west Arkansas, picked it up, and brought it back to Little Rock. For years it sat in storage at UA Little Rock. While that probably stopped its deterioration, it did nothing to restore it.
In 2009, the St. Louis Art Museum restored one panel of it to include in an exhibition on Jones, a native of the Gateway City. That prompted Cushman to push even harder to have the rest of it restored. In 2012, the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council provided a grant which made restoration possible. Additional funding came from the University and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The 29 pieces of the mural were sent to Helen Houp Fine Art Conservation in Dallas.
The mural consists of three sections that brutally but honestly tell tales of the South in the first third of the 20th Century. The first section depicts coal miners about to go on strike, the middle section shows a lynching of an African American man, and the third shows an African American family in fear inside a wooden shack – both in the shadow of the lynching and an impending tornado set to destroy the land they are working.
It is a difficult piece. It is intended to be disquieting. But UA Little Rock also sought to put the piece in context. They did not do this to explain away or make excuses. But they did it to relate it to events in Little Rock both during that time period and other times in the City’s history. It is designed to encourage dialogue, scholarship, and collaborations.
The space in which the mural is displayed was designed by architect Steve Rousseau. Credit goes to the UA Little Rock Board of Visitors, Chancellor Andrew Rogerson, and many other faculty and staff at the campus for making the UA Little Rock Downtown campus a reality and a showcase for this important mural.