History of Public Art at Gorton
Located in the John E. Baggett Auditorium, four large-scale oil-on-canvas murals - depicting the elements air, fire, water and earth - are the only murals produced in Lake Forest under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Art Project (FAP), conducted throughout the country in the 1930’s. The larger-than-life canvases were painted by Chicago-born artist Ralf Henricksen in 1936.
Commissioned in the ‘30s to bring art to the daily life of the children at the then Edward F. Gorton School, the murals illustrated for the students the natural elements of air, fire, water and earth. Their installation at the school was an example of public school art-appreciation that was innovative for its time. The school had a fine- and performing arts-appreciation program that was initiated and taught by school superintendent John E. Baggett. Every child participated in art-appreciation classes, benefitting from exposure to world-famous paintings and sculpture. But, unlike the prints and sculpture casts used in Mr. Baggett’s classroom, the Gorton School WPA murals were decorative, almost childlike and provided students with first-hand exposure to works of contemporary art by a living artist.
Typically, murals painted under the WPA program focused on heroic-proportioned representations of the American Spirit, heroes, literary works and physical depiction of the American Experience. By contrast, the Gorton murals have a childlike quality because the artist Henricksen was painting them for the elementary school.
Viewing the Murals
The murals may be viewed by the public during business hours, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays, or by appointment.
Click on a mural to see a larger view
More about the Artist Ralf (Ralph) Henricksen
The art educator, water colorist, painter, and muralist Ralf Christian Henricksen was born in Chicago, and graduated from Hyde Park High School and The School of The Art Institute of Chicago. The only son of Danish immigrant parents, he was supported in pursuing an art career by his father, a master craftsman who decorated elegant homes and public buildings. At The Art Institute, he graduated with a Four-Year Diploma, several awards and prizes, and a Traveling Award to Europe.
On returning to Chicago during the Great Depression, he first painted easel pictures under the Public Works Administration Art Project. This work led in 1934 and 1935 to involvement with a government-sponsored painting and sculpture project and the Federal Art Project, a division of the WPA. He was involved with both until their conclusion in 1943. His first commission was for a mural for the U.S. Naval Training Station at Great Lakes, installed in 1936 (since disappeared).
Also in 1936, Henricksen created four murals - "Air," "Fire," "Water," and "Earth" - for the auditorium at the Edward F. Gorton School in Lake Forest, which in later years he described as his "most successful." Art professor and critic Eldon N. Van Liere said of the Gorton School murals, "What Henricksen achieved here was a decorative charm and a childlike delight unique to his murals, and as a result they held a solid place in his affection."
Henricksen went on to win six other commissions for WPA/FAP murals: three at the Horace Mann School in Chicago (1937); "The Romance of Monroe" for the Monroe, Michigan Post Office (1938); four for the Amelia D. Hookway School in Chicago (1939); two, "The Americanization of Immigrants," for West Pullman High School in Chicago (1940); "Going to Work" for the Stanton, Illinois, Post Office (1941); and "The Recruit" for the U.S. Army Air Base at Scott Field, Illinois (1942).
Henricksen later became an art professor at Michigan State University, East Lansing, and its Summer Art School at Leland, Michigan. Until his death in 1975, he had numerous exhibitions in the company of such renowned artists as Andrew Wyeth, Ivan Albright, and Peter Hurd.
The Restoration Story
During the early 1960s, the murals were painted over due to an accumulation of dirt and grime from the heating vents located directly below the panels. For more than 40 years they were not viewed by the public and were believed to have been destroyed. An inquiry in 1996 led to closer examination, which revealed a reflection of canvas weave in the surface of the paint. Conservation exploration was undertaken by two conservators, and both concluded that the murals were intact and could be fully restored.
In December 2003, the painstaking work to remove the overlayers of paint and restore the paintings was begun by the Chicago Conservation Center. Restoration was completed in May 2004. Each mural presented special challenges, but all four have been restored to their former delicate charm. Particularly exciting was the discovery of the artist's signature, the date of 1936, and the Federal Art Project designation on the lower left corner of the mural "Air." Signatures on such pieces are often are missing, so this discovery was exceptional.
Thanks to a challenge grant by the Jamee and Marshall Field Foundation and the generosity of community members, restoration was possible and these national treasures once again became available for public enjoyment.