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A legacy takes flight

After more than a year's work and at a cost of $300,000, works by St. Petersburg artist George Snow Hill are on display at Tampa International Airport.

By LENNIE BENNETT

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 13, 2002


After more than a year's work and at a cost of $300,000, works by St. Petersburg artist George Snow Hill are on display at Tampa International Airport.

TAMPA -- Art is not always created through patronage, but that is the only way it survives. The murals of the late George Snow Hill have a history of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and champions of his work, those who might have helped preserve it, have been few. With the installation of seven restored works by Hill in Tampa International Airport's new Airside E terminal, perhaps the trend is about to be reversed.

Hill was a painter and sculptor, but was known primarily as a muralist. An unexpected and unintentional notoriety also followed this mild-mannered, conservative painter who lived in St. Petersburg until his death at 70 in 1969.

For example:

n A circuit judge halted installation in the Clearwater courthouse of a Hill mural in 1934, saying he did not want "pictures of sunbathers with brassiere-type bathing suits hanging over my bench."

n A young activist named Joseph Waller walked into St. Petersburg's City Hall on Dec. 29, 1966, and ripped another of Hill's murals from a wall, where it had hung since 1945. "It depicts Negroes in a most despicable, derogatory manner," said Waller, now known as Omali Yeshitela.

n In 1998, someone complained about the topless mermaid in a mural Hill painted in the officers' dining room at the Coast Guard station in St. Petersburg, opening up a review of its merit by government officials.

And then there are the airport murals.

Hill was commissioned in 1939 to create a series of panels for the Peter O. Knight Airport in Tampa as part of the government-funded works projects of that era. They were so poorly treated that by the time they were moved to Tampa International Airport in 1965, they needed to be restored. Instead, they were rolled up and stashed in a boiler room, enduring more damage and nearly ruined beyond repair.

"The airport didn't have a public arts program until 1998," said Brenda Geoghagan, director of community relations. "Until then, we never had funding to restore them."

That year, the airport started setting money aside to acquire art, and officials used some of it to hire James Swope Fine Arts Conservation of West Palm Beach to repair the seven panels.

After a year of restoration work costing almost $300,000, the panels look new. In fact, much of the painting on them is new. So much of it was lost and Swope's team had to repaint major sections. In their near death and rebirth is a tale of the sometimes capricious and random way we preserve and value our past.

* * *

George Snow Hill and his wife, Polly Knipp Hill, met as art students at Syracuse University and studied in Paris during the 1920s, where they were married. They seem to have been unaffected by the iconoclastic currents swirling through the Parisian art community at that time, which was an incubator for artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dali. She chose etching as her primary medium, he oil on canvas. Both were representational painters, reproducing scenes first in Paris, then in St. Petersburg, where they settled, for reasons unknown, in 1932.

Though he made no allusions to it in interviews published over the years, George Snow Hill's style seems to hew close to the Regionalist movement of the 1930s and early 1940s. His figures and composition are especially reminiscent of Thomas Hart Benton, who was also a muralist for New Deal arts programs. Like Benton's, Hill's figures are visceral and slightly elongated, and the scenes hyperkinetic, full of movement and activity.

Like most muralists, Hill's livelihood depended on specific commissions, and he was fortunate to work during the New Deal. Shortly after he arrived in the Tampa Bay area, Hill received a government commission for five murals for the Pinellas County courthouse in Clearwater. The work covered county history beginning with DeSoto's landing in the 1500s and included a beach scene with women in bathing attire.

"Indecent and lewd," declared Circuit Judge John U. Bird who said he would not have them in his courtroom, "the most solemn place known to human beings."

Bird softened his tone after Mrs. Walter P. Fuller, wife of a local leader and chairman of Florida's public works and arts projects, decried Bird's decision.

"I have nothing but the kindest regard toward Mrs. Walter P. Fuller and the artist," he said. "They are excellent pictures from an art viewpoint . . . but not in a courtroom."

The murals, totaling about 50 feet in length, were hung in the Clearwater city auditorium. The building was razed in the 1960s and city officials don't know what became of them.

On March 3, 1945, another project by Hill was extolled in the St. Petersburg Times. Two murals, each 7 feet by 10 feet, were commissioned by the federal government and the city to depict "the life and spirit of St. Petersburg" in the late 1930s. World War II ended the federal government funding for arts programs but Hill completed the murals after the war. One is a scene at a pier, one of a picnic. They were praised in reports of the time and hung in City Hall.

A little more than two decades later, during a climate of racial unrest, black leaders requested the picnic scene be removed, objecting to its caricature of black musicians. City officials ignored them. Joe Waller walked into the building and tore it from the wall.

Hill, who was just released from the hospital following a heart attack, was dismayed.

"There was no feeling of anything but affection for the troubadours," he told a reporter.

Waller was arrested and charged with felony theft. The mural was used as evidence during the trial and then disappeared. Clerk of the Circuit Court Karleen De Blaker said her office has no record of it, but believes it was destroyed, as all unclaimed evidence is, after a period of time.

The murals on the walls of the Coast Guard wardroom depicting dramatic scenes from the service's history were another government arts project, completed in 1937 for the new station on Bayboro Harbor in St. Petersburg. They suffered the least neglect of any of Hill's public arts projects, and after a committee dismissed the complaints of their unseemliness in 1998, have been left alone.

Archivists at the Florida Capitol can't say what happened to a Hill mural, painted for the 1933 Chicago World's Fair and moved to the Capitol, nor does anyone know the fate of murals painted for several post offices in Florida and Alabama.

Their loss is not great in the art world, for Hill is considered a minor artist. But they are a loss because of the community record they provided. And so the resurrection of the airport murals is important.

* * *

"No question their value is as historic documents, not art," Swope said.

Swope is one of a small group of experts in the U.S. who work on damaged art. His undergraduate degree included art history, studio art and chemistry, the three components necessary to be accepted into a graduate conservation program. Swope's graduate degree came from Harvard's Center for Conservation and Technical Studies. Besides being a conservationist-for-hire by museums nationwide, he is adjunct conservator for the Norton Museum in Palm Beach.

The goal of all who care for art is to do as little to it as possible while controlling any elements that might cause damage. Sometimes, as in the case of the airport murals, the damage is so extensive, the art has to be repaired and replicated. That is the difference between conservation, the preferred approach to art, and restoration, the last line of defense against its loss.

"In my report," he said, "I told them it would be cheaper to hire an artist to reproduce the murals rather than restore them, but they felt it was worth it to preserve the originals."

Hill used good materials in painting the murals, which were described as "depicting the historical development of aviation." But a common practice during his time was to slather lead-based paint on the back of the canvas and use it like glue to affix it to a wall rather than framing and hanging it, "which was fine until you had to get it down," Swope said.

In a news story dated June 20, 1960, Hill expressed concern over the deteriorating condition of the airport murals, which he called "perhaps my finest work," complaining that moisture was damaging them.

The Peter O. Knight Airport was torn down several years later and work crews simply ripped the canvases from the walls, "shattering the integrity of the paint," Swope said, and destroying some of the images. "Then they used a sander to grind off the backing."

Hill was called in to correct the damage, "and he did a terrible job," Swope said. "Maybe he had to do it for free, maybe he was tired."

At 32 feet in length, the largest mural, of Tony Jannus' flight from St. Petersburg to Tampa, was cut into three pieces. Several of the murals were hung for a time in areas of the new Tampa International Airport, but eventually all were stored in a boiler room, exposed to elements. At some point, a well-meaning museum director suggested they be covered with tissue paper, which stuck to the softening paint. When the tissue was removed, more of the images peeled off with the paper.

Swope was left with fragile paintings missing major sections. He and his team cleaned all the canvases, removing and smoothing the backs first. Then they "inpainted," matching up colors and filling in blanks, repainting blank areas. The old canvases were laminated to strong synthetic ones.

Though Swope estimates that although as much as 70 percent of the murals had to be retouched, a casual observer will never know where the original ends and new painting begins, especially since they hang high above eye level in the terminal.

The six smaller ones, each measuring 121/2 feet square, are in the main waiting area. The large mural, which Swope did not try to rejoin, hangs above the entry area, where travelers will see it as they disembark from the trams.

Hill's choice of subject matter was quirky. The seminal moments he chose in "the development of aviation history" are of Archimedes, a Greek mathematician; Icarus and Daedalus, the mythological father and son who tried to fly using wings crafted of wax; the Montgolfier Brothers, who pioneered the hot-air balloon; Otto Lilienthal, an early designer of gliders; the Wright Brothers; and two of Tony Jannus, one of his early days in Russia and the large mural of him flying the Benoist in the first scheduled airline passenger flight in the United States, from St. Petersburg to Tampa.

They are not great but they are interesting, full of allusions to classical art both in composition and subject matter. Hill's critics will find the same cartoonish caricatures, especially in the large Jannus mural that includes both distinguished personages and huckster types, which offended some in the 1960s. But as Swope said, "he doesn't caricature one type of person. Everybody comes off looking sort of bad in it."

Hill would probably disagree. And he would probably prefer that the respect his work is now commanding be due more to its virtue as art than its value as social document. But that is the prerogative of history, to be selective, to pass judgments and to remember or forget.

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