Estella Williams grew up going to Will Rogers Memorial Center, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that she took notice of the two, 200-foot-long tile murals that line the top of the auditorium and the coliseum.
The imagery depicted on the hand-painted tiles was brought to her attention as the president of the Fort Worth and Tarrant County branch of the NAACP following a post on social media in 2019.
The poster took issue with one scene on the auditorium’s facade that includes a 1930s stylized depiction of two Black field workers picking cotton and described it as racist.
At its July 17 meeting, the Fort Worth Art Commission approved the design and text of plaques to contextualize the murals. Pending city council approval for a contract, the commission anticipates the plaques will be installed around the end of the year.
Williams worked at the Department of Agriculture for nearly 40 years and was a member of the advisory panel that recommended adding the plaques. She thanked the commission and her peers for their thoughtfulness in addressing the resident’s concerns.
“I am grateful to be able to see that it was not overlooked, but again was taken as a serious matter,” she said at the commission’s June 12 meeting.
She is looking forward to when the plaques are installed and visitors who look up at the buildings will also be able to look down and learn some context about the murals.
The murals, which adorn the facades of both the auditorium and coliseum, were finished in 1936. Prolific architect Wyatt C. Hedrick designed the buildings, which were constructed for the state’s centennial celebration. The murals depict romanticized scenes of settlement, industrialization and the diverse groups of people who called Texas home.
William Jackson Hammond, former Fort Worth mayor and chair of Texas Christian University’s history department chair, is said to have recommended subjects for the mural, according to city reports. The one-term, self-described “New Deal Mayor” was known for his progressive politics.
Hedrick’s longtime collaborator, Herman Koeppe, designed the murals. Kenneth Gale, of the Zanesville, Ohio, Mosaic Tile Company, modified and fabricated the murals, according to the art commission’s records.
The murals predate the city’s public art program, but were added into its Community Legacy Collection in 2006. Fort Worth Public Art, which is managed by Arts Fort Worth, oversees the public art program for the city.
Text for the auditorium’s introductory plaque says:
“In 1936, these murals were considered the largest set of mosaics in the world. Like other public artwork created during the Great Depression (1929–1939), stylized images feature intertwined cultural stories. Themes directed by Texas Christian University Professor and one-term Fort Worth Mayor William Jackson Hammond focused on progress and achievement. Nevertheless, the murals did not represent an accurate story. The goal of these interpretative plaques is to encourage viewers to learn more about Texas’ multifaceted history and to foster cultural understanding and equity in our community.”
The issue was first taken up by Fort Worth City Council in late 2019. In early 2020, the Fort Worth Art Commission formed an advisory panel after hosting a series of public comment sessions and a presentation about the mural’s history.
Through that process, the group agreed that the best way forward was to help contextualize the murals with on-site plaques that would be embedded in the ground.
Kevin Kemp, who represented Will Rogers Memorial Center on the panel, expressed gratitude for the process and how receptive its members were to working through concerns about functionality. The grounds at Will Rogers see extensive foot traffic, so it was important that the markers would be able to withstand the presence of large crowds and pressure from heavy equipment.
He called the experience a “true joy” at the commission’s June meeting.
“I can’t even tell you all the thought that went into the text, getting it correct. It was very important for the committee. We weren’t trying to interpret the art for anybody,” he said. “We wanted to explain what was there and let each individual interpret it for themselves.”
Deborah Liles, a history professor at Tarleton State University, wrote her master’s thesis on architect Wyatt C. Hedrick and published a book on Will Rogers Coliseum before completing her Ph.D. The Weatherford resident spoke at the commission’s June meeting and sent the panel notes about some of the proposed text.
“I think it’s important to always have context,” she said in a later call with the Report. “When you go to a museum, for example, there is a write-up about the piece of art that is on display, and that helps people get a better understanding of that artwork itself.”
Though all of the state’s residents played a part in the state’s history, not all residents have had an equal say in how that history is transmitted to others, she said. “We know better now. And when you know better, you do better.”
For her, the plaques will help fill some of those gaps that were left out in the 30s.
Mark Thistlethwaite, professor emeritus and former art history chair at Texas Christian University, did not work on this project but agreed that it’s important to look at the context around a piece when it was made.
“It’s sort of a widescreen, cinematic view of a slice of history from 1936. And this would have been a … contemporary scene at the moment it was made,” he said. This was part of the Works Progress Administration of the New Deal, “and that relates to what was going on in the country at the time in the Depression and people trying to survive.”
The artist’s intent of a specific work and how it is received by the public don’t always line up, he said, but that is an inherent risk of putting art out into the world.
When discussing plausible readings of art with students, he asks them to provide visible evidence that supports their interpretation.
For Thistlethwaite, it’s important the plaques give background about both the piece’s history and the present moment.
“Why are we putting a plaque up at this time? Why do we need to talk about this now? Why hasn’t it been talked about earlier?” he said. “Having contemporary context … I think that’s helpful.”
The next steps
The art commission will send its recommendation to Fort Worth City Council and ask council members to authorize a contract for the fabrication, delivery and installation of the plaques.
Estrus Tucker, chair of the art commission, praised everyone who was willing to participate and share their ideas at public meetings. Throughout this process, he said, there was agreement.
“Everybody’s perspective and voice was invited. And at the end of it, we all felt that our voice was reflected in the final decision,” he said at the June meeting. “That doesn’t happen a lot in any setting, so that is exceptionally impressive.”
He understands why people can be apprehensive about discussing race and identity, but hopes that the success of these meetings will encourage people not to shy away from conversations like this. He credits city leadership for asking the commission to gather community feedback.
For him, this experience ties back to the importance of public art.
“Public art is about engagement. It’s not about scripting or censoring. It’s about engagement,” he said. “Engagement is not about agreeing. … It’s about listening and learning from one another as neighbors, as people in our city.”
Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.