Thursday, January 08, 2009

Mural Saved from Milton Fire

Except for Bill Gamblin's reporting in the Santa Rosa County Press-Gazette, local TV and newspaper reporting about Tuesday night's destructive fire in downtown Milton has been long on big headlines and dramatic photos, but short on facts. To some extent, this is to be expected. No one stops to read a fire.

The good news that you can't find anywhere else is that George Snow Hill's 1941 mural "Loading Pulpwood" somehow survived the fire, smoke, and water with minimal damage. Other than the Imogene Theater itself, "Loading Pulpwood" was perhaps the most important and valuable piece of Americana put at risk by the spectacular fire.

When we last saw the painting a few months ago it was in a setting more appropriate for a feed store than a museum: on a dirty wooden floor in the empty (and dismally lighted) east room of the two-room county historical museum, propped up against a dusty brick wall that abuts the rest of the Imogene Theater.

When we learned that the Imogene Theater had caught fire, we remembered that depressing scene and feared for the mural's fate. But we now have it on the highest authority that the oil-on-canvass painting was retrieved from the damaged Santa Rosa Historical Society museum about mid-morning Wednesday and has been taken for storage to "an undisclosed location." Likely, this is the former Milton post office, which was the painting's original home.

The mural is said to be in sound shape, though in need of cleaning. Nothing new, there. The painting has been in need of curatorial care and cleaning for decades. Judging from the casual way it's been handled over the past decade, few in Santa Rosa County have fully understood the gem they have in "Loading Pulpwood."

George Snow Hill was one of Florida's, and the nation's, leading regionalist painters. His work, particularly that done in the 1930's and 1940's, was very much of the same school and caliber as that of Thomas Hart Benton, John Stuart Curry, and Grant Wood.

But they were white. George Snow Hill was black, a fact that along with the usual fickleness of the art market helps to explain why so many of Hill's works have been lost, damaged, stolen, or neglected.

It always puzzled us why Santa Rosa County did not feature the mural as a tourist attraction. But the county isn't alone. One of the few other known murals by Hill in the Florida panhandle, as we recall reading several years ago, was accidentally discovered beneath a coating of wall paint in a former post office building which was bought by a private law firm. Other Hill murals have been discovered on the walls of a public building in St. Petersburg which was being converted to a night club.

The neglect of George Snow Hill has only recently begun to change. In the late 1990's, as an archived St. Petersburg Times article explains, Tampa's airport authority spent $300,000 restoring seven of his murals and has since featured them as part of its public art display.

Impressive as the Tampa murals are, we've always considered "Loading Pulpwood" to be even better. As a work of art it seems to us technically superior and emotionally more evocative. If it's ever professionally cleaned, it would also rank among his most colorful.

We used to visit the painting frequently. Before Ivan, we had a number of photos of it. Now that we know the original mural in Milton is safe, we're looking forward to having our own photograph of it again, very soon.

Perhaps after Santa Rosa County receives an economic stimulus grant from the Obama administration to properly restore and display this truly unique -- and, considering the extensiveness of the Milton fire, lucky -- work of art by an American master.


Anonymous said...

You'll be happy to hear. The post office mural by George Hill Know "Pulpwood Logging" is now proudly exhibited above the Post Masters door of the Old Post Office Antqiues back into it's orignal location. Public welcome to visit. 7 days a week. Mon-Sat 10am to 5pm, Sun 12 to 5 pm. 6821 Caroline Street. Milton, FL 850-623-6245

JB said...

I don't want to upset anyone, but I knew George Snow Hill, Syracuse University trained and lived most of his adult life in St. Petersburg FL, and he was not a black man.

REMO said...

Thanks for clearing that up, JB. That threw me off.

T J Sawyer said...

I recently came upon your blog while researching George Snow Hill for a blog post. A current photo and more information on George Snow Hill is displayed on my travel blog

There is a showing of Pauline Knipp Hill's work scheduled for April 07, 2012 - June 03, 2012 at the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens Georgia.

I hope that you have not stopped blogging, especially on local subjects.