by Elana Spivack
Nearly 200 years ago, Bishop Philander Chase overlooked the land on which Kenyon would be built, and uttered the phrase, “Yes, this will do.” Gambier’s post office features a mural that depicts this very moment. Accompanied in the mural by Henry B. Curtis, an attorney friend of his, Chase sits on horseback and holds the blueprints for Old Kenyon Residence Hall.
Truth is, this never happened.
The mural has some historical errors in it, according to College Historian and Keeper of Kenyoniana Tom Stamp ’73. A brief description — written by former Kenyon College Archivist Thomas B. Greenslade in 1988 — located beneath the mural reads, “Finding the climb up the slow impeded by a dense growth of underbrush, [Chase and Curtis] left their horses behind and climbed on foot.” Being on horseback made the painting more dramatic, thought the culture experts supervising the piece. The mural also omits debris from a recent windstorm. Still, exactitude is not everything. “I think it’s a wonderful addition … even if it isn’t accurate,” Stamp said. “It still gets the point across.”
Austin Porter, professor of art history and post-doctoral fellow at the Center for the Study of American Democracy, said President Franklin Roosevelt commissioned public art projects for painters, musicians and other artists through the New Deal, all to be funded by the Department of the Treasury. Porter paraphrased the feeling of a White House administrator who supported the project, saying, “Hell, artists are people and they have to eat, too.”
The man behind the mural is late Professor and Director of Art Norris Rahming, who is credited with founding Kenyon’s art department. According to Stamp, Rahming (1886-1959) developed the concept for the mural and painted it himself after receiving government approval in 1942.
One condition of the government funding was that the content had to be fairly tame. “Now the trick, of course, was that you couldn’t do anything controversial,” Porter said. “You couldn’t have any … abstract or weird … style or imagery.” Hence, Gambier’s own mural portrays in straightforward fashion the legend behind the College’s conception. “Some people hate [the style] because of that,” Porter said. “There are whole schools of art historians who hate this [style] because [it’s], in their words, ‘retrograde, conservative and backward- thinking.’”
These government-funded murals served to distinguish their venues. They only exist in older government buildings; not even Mount Vernon’s post office has one. Murals like this one are dwindling. “We’re lucky to have it,” Porter said. “They’re not uncommon, but they’re not everywhere.”
As with all art, the mural is open for interpretation. Professor of Art History Melissa Dabakis, who also chairs the department, elaborated a possible anti-fascist meaning to the mural in the context of the end of the Great Depression and the start of World War II, around when it was painted. She said the poverty of the Great Depression forced Kenyon’s application numbers down, and the board of trustees speculated about turning Kenyon into a business school so men could learn marketable skills. At the same time, men were entering the draft, driving numbers down further.
“This mural then makes an argument for the liberal arts,” Dabakis said. She said it “goes back to the roots of Kenyon, the principles upon which it was founded.” This celebration of the liberal arts extends to fighting fascism. In the midst of the war, a mural promoting liberal arts advocated “critical thinking, dissent, everything that of course fascism was not, and for which, one could argue, Americans were fighting,” Dabakis said.