Oberlin Public Art
Patricia Finley: "Mural for Children's Library"
It came as a surprise recently to one Oberlin faculty member that when he mentioned the Public Library some of his freshman students had no idea where it was.
New buildings mean new paths and the classes of students who trod the marble foyer of Carnegie Library have been superseded by those who travel up the concrete ramp of Mudd Learning Center. Dropping into the Public Library has become less common as Carnegie has become a less-frequented corner of the campus.
The relationship between Oberlin College and the Public Library is a long one. The Library was open to any responsible person of the town "upon payment of a quarterly tax of 50 cents" in 1886. When the Carnegie building was built in 1908, a fiction room and children's room were shared with the public. In 1947 the Public Library came into being with its own board of trustees and the right to acquire funds from intangible taxes. It retained its home in the Carnegie building, however, and remained the recipient of College services.
When the Boys' and Girls' Room was to be redecorated in 1948 and there was an opportunity of using a large mural in the scheme, the College Art Department was consulted. The execution of the mural was assigned to graduate student Patricia Finley as the major part of her work for the master's degree. The other part was her thesis, Design and Execution of a Mural. It is an interesting view of the evolution of an art project and a revelation to the non-artist that the long arduous hours of standing on a scaffold applying paint to a 6 1/2 x 17 foot wall were perhaps the least demanding of those spent on the work.
The mural as an art form has been inseparably associated with the W.P.A., the project that gave employment in Depression days to artists to decorate federal buildings. Because of this tie it has been assumed by many that the children's room mural was one of these projects. Pat did not consult the works of the previous decade, though she may have benefited from the project's popularizing the art form. Nor did she give attention to the Kenyon Cox lunettes close at hand in the Administration Building. Active during an earlier period of great interest in wall paintings, Cox had been one of the most celebrated muralists in the country. His 1915 decorations on the campus, memorials to his father and mother, are typical of the giant allegorical figures prominent in institution decoration of that era. They had little to offer the artist of a children's library room.
Her sources were to be more classic. A Gothic tympanum suggested a composition that would hold its own with the heavy architecture of the room. In selecting a lintel and arch form she achieved the necessary stability and acquired as a bonus, a psychologically suitable shape, a portal. A 16th-century mille fleur tapestry in the Allen Art Museum collection supplied the solution to the problem of enlivening the background with a flat pattern of flower shapes. Renaissance frescoes gave her an appreciation for amplitude of form. The librarian had suggested that illustrations from familiar fairy tales would most successfully appeal to the broad age group that made up the library's visitors. Pat chose three stories that offered a wide variety of shapes and patterns. But there was a period of self-criticism when she recognized that her drawing might be weak, or that her vocabulary of form was limited, and that it was necessary to restudy structure of natural forms.
The mural was not to be true fresco (buon fresco) in which color is applied to wet plaster and becomes integrated with it. There was not time to develop the necessary special technique. Besides, the application of paint on a dry surface (fresco secco) allowed the use of more vivacious colors, appropriate to the spirit of a room for children and necessary to balance the large architectural forms in the room. An appendix to her thesis, "Psychological Experiments with Illustrative Materials for Children," reveals her investigation of suitable color and design.
Renaissance painting taught her the value of composing with tone. She learned that later she could do almost anything with color and the composition would still hold together.
And then, in spite of all the sketches, preplanning, the re-educating of eye and hand, once she stood on the scaffold and had put in the under-painting there were new considerations. . ,"...the greatly increased size, the new material, and new surroundings demanded their own particular solutions which could not possibly have been foreseen in a sketch." She acknowledged the fact that an intellectual solution was not the same as a productive application of the solution.
The materials used in the 110 1/2 square-foot mural were 20 tubes of various pigments, brushes varying from 3/16" to 2", two coffee cans (one for clear water, the other for brush rinsing) a muffin tin for mixing water with pigments, a cake of soap for brush cleaning, a package of paper towels, a 4' x 6' scaffold. It is a modest list of supplies when compared with the pleasure it has given the children who have used the room for the past 27 years.
Following her graduation and marriage Pat studied at the Cincinnati Art Academy and taught painting classes at the Cincinnati Museum of Art. Sculpture had become her main interest. There were some years of work as an art librarian there and in New York, a bronze in a Newark Museum show, and then a shift to a new field, that of Jungian analysis. An article on her use of graphic techniques in her work appeared in the October 1975 issue of Art Psychotherapy.
Recently, there has been some concern for the library mural. The drawback to fresco secco is that it is impermanent. Pat chose casein colors for their clarity and durability and she chose correctly. It is only after 25 years that paint weakness and loss became obvious in one area, the upper right corner. Anxious to preserve what has become an essential part of the room, Librarian Eleanor Owen '59 B.D. is hopeful a way can be found to repair the mural.
During her storytelling sessions she has frequently called attention to the work and noted with satisfaction the delight of a new word and concept to a small child. Having lived with the mural since its inception she has observed that what began as a learning experience for Patricia Finley has become that for others.
1 Now 68 South Professor and the home of Emeritus Economics Prof. Ben and Gertrude Lewis.
2 Their children Champ '33 and the late Helen Ward '32.
3 I was unable to locate these relief plaques. The large bronze relief portrait of James Severance who was treasurer for more than 20 years, is now stored in the Archives.
4 Julia Severance's etchings will be exhibited at Mudd Learning Center in May 1976.