The Struggle in the South [Mural]

The Struggle in the South is a 44′ x 9′ mural by Joe Jones that includes dramatic scenes of striking miners and a lynching attempt. Completed in 1935, this painting is an example of Jones’s protest art during the years of the Great Depression.

Joseph John (Joe) Jones was eulogized upon his death in 1963 as a corporate artist, with commissions from Fortune magazine and Standard Oil; this characterization overshadowed any mention of his beginnings as a Communist house painter. At the beginning of his career and during the height of the Great Depression, however, Jones was known as one of America’s notable social protest artists. Jones came from a working-class family. His immigrant Welsh father, Frank J. Jones, and American-born, German-descended mother, Annie A. Roehrs Jones, moved to St. Louis, Missouri, when they married. Jones was the youngest of five siblings. After finishing the eighth grade at Benton Grade School in 1923, fourteen-year-old Jones apprenticed with his father as a housepainter, earning his own union card.

Jones’s interests eventually turned from painting houses to painting images that reflected a rough life in St. Louis and also the inequities he saw in everyday life. In particular, Jones was aware of the plight of African Americans, who, in his view, suffered the most in a capitalist society dominated by whites. His frequent use of lynching images in his paintings reflected his championing of black causes during the Depression and brought commissions from such left-wing institutions as Commonwealth College in Mena (Polk County). Commonwealth College was founded in 1923 to train students in socioeconomic reform and the labor movement. The college had closed by the end of 1940.

In the summer of 1935, Jones traveled to Mena, where he had been engaged as a lecturer on proletarian art at Commonwealth College and was commissioned to paint a mural in the school’s dining hall depicting Arkansas laborers. Jones traveled around Arkansas in order to gather photographic images to use for the mural, finishing The Struggle in the South in early September 1935. When Commonwealth College closed five years later and campus structures were torn down, The Struggle in the South was removed and reportedly taken to the home of the daughter of a faculty member, who used it as material to line closets in a Mena home.

Forty-four years after the college closed, archivists at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock were informed about the mural and acquired it. Found in twenty-nine pieces, the fragile and damaged artwork was put into storage in the university’s art collection area.

In the summer of 2009, the Saint Louis Art Museum contacted UA Little Rock’s art gallery, requesting to see the mural, as the museum was planning an exhibition of Joe Jones and his work. The museum offered to restore a portion of the mural for its exhibition “Joe Jones—Painter of the American Scene,” which ran from October 2010 through January 2011. The Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council (ANCRC) encouraged UA Little Rock to apply for a grant for restoration and conservation of the entire mural. The awarded grant of over $500,000 paid for the work on the mural, which involved six conservators between 2012 and 2015.

The restored mural was permanently placed for public view at UA Little Rock Downtown in the River Market district in 2018. Brad Cushman, gallery director at UA Little Rock’s Windgate Center for Art and Design, stated that he hopes the mural will inspire ongoing conversations and “a place of civic reflection,” as it is perhaps the most daring piece of protest art in Arkansas.

For additional information:
Coleman, Audrey. “Joe Jones and a Place of Civic Reflection.” AY Magazine, January 2017. https://aymag.com/joe-jones-and-a-place-of-civic-reflection/ (accessed July 11, 2019).

Marling, Karal Ann. “Joe Jones: Regionalist, Communist, Capitalist.” Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts 4 (Spring 1987): 46–59.

North, Cori Sherman. “A Restless Regionalist: the Art of Joe Jones.” http://sandzen.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Restless-Regionalist-The-Art-of-Joe-Jones.pdf (accessed July 11, 2019).

Peacock, Leslie Newell. “A Mural to Move Arkansas Forward.” Arkansas Times, December 27, 2018, pp. 6–11. Online at https://www.arktimes.com/arkansas/struggle-in-the-south/Content?oid=27022564 (accessed July 11, 2019).

Kaye M. Lundgren
UA Little Rock Center for Arkansas History and Culture

Last Updated: 07/11/2019

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