A Story of a Mentor's Role in Mural Art

Glass rotunda, painted mural, and pillars.
Woodbury County Courthouse rotunda. Murals by John Warner Norton.

Photo courtesy of Carl Klein, National Park Service.

The Woodbury County Courthouse in Sioux City, Iowa (National Historic Landmark designation in 1996), is considered the finest example of a Prairie-Style designed civic building in the United States. While the building’s architecture, designed by William L. Steele, may garner acclaim, the courthouse’s art also deserves attention. The paintings showcased in the rotunda represent the tradition of people helping people, a principle closely connected to twentieth-century Midwestern mural art and realized through the exceptional murals painted by artist John Warner Norton.

The associate architects of the Woodbury County Courthouse, George Purcell and William Elmslie, engaged Illinois mural artist John Warner Norton to design four murals for the mezzanine level of the rotunda. Norton created “a panorama of visual images reflecting historical, contemporary, and futuristic scenarios of importance to the courthouse visitors.”[1] Above the entrance, Norton painted a court scene representing the administration of justice. On the south wall balcony, the mural depicts local farm life by portraying men and women who exemplify the strong American work ethic. The State of Iowa motto, “Our liberties we prize, our rights we will maintain,” is emblazoned above the rotunda stairway and sets the tone for the third mural. This mural commemorates the soldiers and families of World War I. The final panel located above the north entrance characterizes progress by depicting a group of figures perched atop the area’s hills looking toward the threshold of a new era. The Woodbury County Courthouse murals, completed in 1919, provide “a strong internal focal point within a structure consistently animated by spectacular architecture.”[2]

John Warner Norton was born on March 7, 1876. He grew up in Lockport, Illinois, where his father founded the Norton & Company water-powered flour mill. After studying law at Harvard University, Norton attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) in 1897 and 1889-1901, and exhibited his mural and easel work at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) starting in 1904. Norton completed his first major mural for Chicago’s Cliff Dwellers’ Club in 1909. He taught mural art and other mediums at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) throughout the 1910s, 1920s, and the early 1930s, and did a number of murals in Chicago, including some for the Hamilton Park Field House (1916) and Ceres, a three-story depiction of the Roman goddess of grain, for the Chicago Board of Trade Building (1930), one of Norton’s most famous commissions. After he completed the Woodbury County Courthouse murals, architects Purcell and Elmslie sponsored Norton’s work in the National Farmer’s Bank in Owatonna, Minnesota (1923, National Historic Landmark designation in 1976) and the First National Bank of Adams, Minnesota (1924). Elmslie also employed Norton to complete murals in the Capitol Building and Loan Association, Topeka, Kansas (1924), Peirce School, Chicago (1925-27), and the Old Second National Bank of Aurora (1925).

Norton’s influence, however, extended further than his individual works. While teaching at SAIC between 1910 and 1933, John Warner Norton instructed several muralists, including Archibald Motley, Jr., Thomas Lea III (Tom Lea), John Steuart Curry, and Ethel Spears, who would later have their careers furthered by federal programs sponsoring unemployed artists and their work. After the Stock Market Crash of October 1929, almost one out of every four Americans was out of work. Influenced by a suggestion to President Franklin D. Roosevelt from George Biddle, the president’s former classmate and a muralist, the New Deal implemented four programs sponsoring artists, the Public Works of Art Project (1933-34), the Treasury Department Section on Painting and Sculpture (1934-1943), the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP), and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of 1935-1943. The WPA operated the Federal Art Project (FAP) and funded TRAP’s mural and other work.
By the program’s conclusion in 1943, the official record of WPA-commissioned works totaled over 100,000 easel paintings in oil, watercolor, tempera, and pastel; nearly 18,000 pieces of sculpture; about 2,500 murals; and some 250,000 prints of more than 11,000 designs. The strength and dignity of common men and women as they faced difficult circumstances was a recurring theme in public artwork.[3] As William F. McDonald wrote in 1969, “Between 1933 and 1943, and more intensively between 1935 and 1939, the government of the United States, through its relief agencies and more particularly through the Works Progress Administration (later called the Work Projects Administration), supported and subsidized an arts program that in material size and cultural character was unprecedented in the history of this or any other nation. The heart of the program was Federal Project Number One, which existed as part of the WPA between 1935 and 1939 and included within its compass art, writing, music, theater, and historical records.” [4]

The Illinois Art Project (IAP), the regional division of the WPA/FAP that existed from 1935 to 1943, allocated 316 murals of which 233 were completed throughout the state, but of these approximately 150 were extant as of 2002. Among those destroyed was the mural Negro Children, created for the Nichols School Music Room, Evanston, Illinois, by John Norton student Archibald Motley, Jr. The IAP’s gallery featured paintings by New Orleans-born Motley, that “stressed the correction of social ills.” The WPA/FAP sponsored the South Side Community Art Center, which was dedicated by Eleanor Roosevelt in May of 1941. The center helped launch the careers of many black Chicago artists, including the Englewood High School and SAIC graduate Archibald Motley. Motley completed a mural for the Wood River Post Office in Wood River, Illinois, called Stagecoach & Mail (1937). Western Illinois University and the Art Institute of Chicago also have both long-displayed his art. Earlier, his perceptiveness was shown by Mending Socks (1924-27) and paintings from a trip to Arkansas, Uncle Bob, Landscape, and Landscape-Arkansas, done around the time he won the Harmon Foundation Award (1928) and a Guggenheim Fellowship (1929).
White mezzanine with colorful murals on the wall.
White terra cotta frames mural on the mezzanine level of Woodbury County Courthouse.

Photo courtesy of Carl Klein, National Park Service.

Tom Lea, who served as John Norton’s apprentice between 1927 and 1932, helped Norton with his prominent mural for the concourse ceiling in the old Chicago Daily News Building (1929, removed 1993). In 1930, Norton encouraged Lea to study art in Europe. Upon his return, Lea worked with Norton until 1933. During his career, Lea was employed to paint murals by the WPA/FAP. While living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and El Paso, Texas, he painted post office murals for the U.S. Department of the Treasury, including the locally often-praised 1939 mural Back Home, April 1865, for the Pleasant Hill, Missouri, post office. His Pass of the North mural for the old federal courthouse in El Paso was painted in 1938.

John Steuart Curry was another prominent Norton student. After his studies ended at SAIC in 1918, Curry became widely known for Baptism in Kansas (1928). After being sponsored by the Public Works of Art Project, in 1936 he became the first artist-in-residence at the College of Agriculture, University of Wisconsin. His two murals for the Department of Justice building in Washington, D.C., Western Migration and Justice Defeating Mob Violence, were followed in 1938 by murals for the new Department of Interior building (including The Homestead which shows the family of a Civil War veteran along the banks of the Arkansas River in Kansas, following Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Homestead Act in 1862). In 1941-42, Curry completed murals for the lobby of the First National Bank in Madison, Wisconsin, and the Law School Library at the University of Wisconsin in Madison (Freeing the Slaves). As 1942 concluded, Curry realized he was not going to be able to finish his murals for the Kansas State Capitol (1937-1942) before his death. He was able to install Kansas Pastoral and Tragic Prelude, the latter with a famous portrayal of John Brown, in the state capitol in Topeka. Studies for additional uninstalled murals were purchased by the Kansas state government in 1992.

Ethel Spears served as a rare example of a female muralist. Under Norton’s supervision in 1923, she painted two murals for the Tea Room at AIC and had her first solo exhibition at SAIC. She exhibited at the AIC seven times between 1926 and 1938. She was commissioned to do murals at the Lowell School, Anderson Playground, Carroll Community House, and Barrie Community House, all in Oak Park, Illinois. Spears worked on murals for the Research Hospital Crippled Children’s Ward in Chicago, Oakton School in Evanston, and Cook County Hospital in Chicago. In the 1930s she worked for the mural division of the Illinois Art Project. In 1936, she painted Horses from Children’s Literature. Intended for the Louis Nettlehorst Elementary School’s library, Chicago, it was installed by 1940. Spears also painted The Life of Carl von Linne [Carolus Linnaeus, 1707-1778] in 1939. It was painted for Carl Von Linne Elementary School, Chicago, to honor the classifier of organisms from the plant and animal kingdoms. The mural was dedicated in 1944. Between 1937 and 1961, Spears was Norton’s successor as a teacher at SAIC. She painted for the public library in Rochelle, Illinois, and the U.S. Post Office in Hartford, Wisconsin (a mural later moved to an art gallery).[5]

Although George Elmslie and William Purcell’s referrals bolstered John Warner Norton’s career as a muralist, his teaching at the SAIC and the WPA-aided mural art of his students tell the story of people helping people for the sake of art.
Originally published in "Exceptional Places" Vol. 7, 2012, a newsletter of the Division of Cultural Resources, Midwest Region. Written by Carl Klein.

[1]. “A Statement In American Architecture, Woodbury County Courthouse, Sioux City, Iowa.,” Brochure produced by Woodbury County, Sioux City, IA.
[2]. Ibid.
[3]. “A New Deal for the Arts[:] WPA Artwork from the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Collection,” an exhibit produced to travel to several CPS schools throughout the city during 2002 and 2003.
[4]. William F. McDonald, Federal Relief Administration and the Arts: The Origin and Administrative History of the Arts Projects of the Works Progress Administration (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 1969).
[5]. George Mavigliano, et al., The Federal Art Project in Illinois, 1935-1943 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois U. Press, 1990); Jim L. Zimmer, John Warner Norton (Springfield: Illinois State Museum, 1993); Heather Becker, Art for the People: The Rediscovery and Preservation of Progressive- and WPA-Era Murals in the Chicago Public Schools, 1904-1943 (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2002).

Last updated: June 21, 2018