Mural discovered at old Moorhead High School

MOORHEAD - A nearly 80-year-old oil painting featuring early pioneer and American Indian life in the region has been discovered in the former Moorhead high school located in the heart of the city.
Rita Berg, Associate Paintings Conservator of the Midwest Art Conservation Center, cleans a section of a recovered mural from 1939 on Wednesday, July 11, 2018, in Moorhead. The mural, painted by Lucia Wiley, was donated to Moorhead High School, which has now been turned into an apartment complex. Erin Bormett / The Forum

MOORHEAD – A nearly 80-year-old oil painting featuring early pioneer and American Indian life in the region has been discovered in the former Moorhead high school located in the heart of the city.

The mural – named “Making Camp on the Red River Trail,” according to the Minnesota Historical Society – was painted in 1939 by Lucia Wiley for the school as part of the national Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration, an agency created by President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program. The administration focused on public works projects and employed musicians, artists and writers.

Brian Cole, Moorhead orchestra teacher and school historian, recently stumbled onto the painting, which had been concealed over the years due to remodeling projects.

"Honestly ... it took my breath away. I think of the thousands of graduates who have seen this," Cole said.

The newly uncovered mural is actually the second WPA painting in the building. Another painting, “Winter Trading Camp” by Minneapolis artist David Granahan, has been viewable for decades near the southeast entrance of what is now called Townsite Centre. The building served as Moorhead High School from 1921 to 1967.

Rita Berg, associate paintings conservator with the nonprofit Midwest Art Conservation Center in Minneapolis, inspected the work and conducted a light surface cleaning.

"The painting is made on canvas, a cotton canvas and pasted onto the wall. Lucky for us," Berg said.

The goal now? Clean up the mural and possibly use ultraviolet light to discover imperfections before undergoing a careful and methodical effort to remove the canvas from the wall and install it at Horizon Middle School in Moorhead.

"So the next 140 years of eyes can look at it," Cole said.

Grants and private donations may be used to fund the effort.

The mural that is currently viewable at Townsite Center will remain where it is.

Wiley, originally from Tillamook, Ore., became nationally known for her work. She attended the University of Minnesota for art education from 1924 to 1926, according to the Oregon Historical Society, but transferred to the University of Oregon to complete her bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

She eventually accepted a teaching position at the Minneapolis School of Art, but had to secure other work when the position was eliminated. She worked as a fresco artist for the WPA from 1938 to 1940 and was later commissioned by other agencies to create work.

From 1932 to 1953, Wiley painted works throughout Minnesota, including frescos in the post offices in Long Prairie and International Falls, in Trophy Hall in the Armory in Minneapolis, and in Miller Vocational High School in Minneapolis. She also created works in Oregon, Wisconsin and Illinois.

Wiley eventually entered the Episcopal order of the Community of Holy Spirit, where she continued her career teaching and creating art. She died in 1998 at the age of 90.