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This is a revised version of the story first printed in 360:The Magazine of San Diego State University, summer 2006. 

On a drowsy summer day in 2004, workmen repairing tiles in Hardy Memorial Tower stumbled into the past. Above the lowered ceiling along a basement wall, they found the partial remains of two historic murals thought to have vanished decades ago.

The murals are a priceless piece of early campus history from the Great Depression. San Diego State art students created five of them to adorn the first campus library in Hardy Tower. They were presumed destroyed during campus renovations in the 1950s.

Now “rediscovered,” the two existing murals reveal deep connections between San Diego State and the people of San Diego in the years following the university’s move to Montezuma Mesa. Though faded and crumbling when found, the paintings vividly depicted an era of economic upheaval that lionized the common laborer and challenged popular faith in rugged individualism.

Artistic force

1930s American life was tinged with desperation. Unemployment affected 15 million people, nearly a quarter of the nation’s workforce. Deter­mined to pull the country out of decline, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt worked with the U.S. Congress to create the Works Progress Adminis­tration (WPA). The agency supervised construction of roads, dams and other public works projects, including the Aztec Bowl and Open Air Theatre on the San Diego State campus.

Artists employed by the WPA and its predecessor, the Public Works of Art Projects (PWAP), created nearly a quarter of a million works of art in the years between 1933 and 1943. Donal Hord’s black diorite sculpture of the Aztec Warrior, a.k.a. Monty, was financed with WPA support.

Everett Gee Jackson, then chair of the art department, used WPA funding to commission murals by San Diego State art students. Of the five murals painted in Hardy Tower, two were by Ellamarie Packard Woolley, daughter of Phineas Packard, the founder of San Diego’s Arts and Crafts Press; another two were created by Genevieve Burgeson Bredo; and the fifth was the work of George Sorenson, who became a renowned local artist and chair of SDSU’s Division of Fine Arts from 1946 to 1969.

Sorenson’s work – a 25-foot-long depiction of San Diego’s fishing and fish-processing industries – was created in 1936, just a year before his graduation from San Diego State College. But he died thinking that his and the other murals were destroyed during a remodeling of Hardy Tower 50 years ago, according to his daughter, Lynn Sorenson Yahr.

“San Diego Industry”

The Sorenson mural, in its current state, shows 20 different characters. The original contained a much larger cast, according to Seth Mallios, the SDSU anthropology professor who identified the rediscovered art and led restoration efforts. The left portion of the mural depicted men fishing, weighing fish and gutting them. The right side illustrated the fish-processing industry with nearly a dozen women standing in two sets of assembly lines and, in the background, conveyer belts lined with short, cylindrical cans.

Mallios believed Sorenson used the Van Camp Seafood Company as a model for his mural, citing “perfect parallels” between Sorenson’s painting and historic photos of the defunct San Diego cannery. Van Camp also operated canneries in Terminal Island, California, American Samoa and Ponce, Puerto Rico. It was the first company to commercially pack yellowfin tuna.

In “NRA Packages,” the second existing mural, Genevieve Burgeson Bredo painted men unloading crates from a truck in a San Diego neighborhood near Hillcrest. Each crate displays a splayed blue eagle with the red letters NRA above, a symbol of the National Recovery Act, which created the WPA. As in many WPA murals, Mallios noted, the sexes are in separate realms; the men work and the woman and children watch. 

“Sorenson’s mural was more progressive and less typical of WPA art than Bredo’s work in terms of its treatment of women and ethnic minorities,” Mallios observed. “Although both murals separate men from women, Sorenson placed the women as active components of San Diego industry. His female workers are far from passive onlookers; they are an essential part of the industrial process.

“In addition, Sorenson incorporates different ethnicities into his images. The man on the dock holding the fish is likely African-American, and he does not appear to be segregated from other ethnicities in the workplace. The same cannot be said of the three Asian men at the end of the fish-processing procedure. They are clustered off to the side, portrayed in distinct clothing, and the slant of their eyes is pronounced, likely to emphasize their ethnic difference.”

Restoration efforts

After examining the hidden murals, Mallios led efforts to kindle local interest in and support for restoring them. He also worked with the SDSU Library’s Special Collections division to unearth early photographs of the murals Jackson had commissioned. 

Now, after six years and the collaboration of faculty, staff and students, a significant piece of SDSU history is once more on display for everyone to enjoy.


Seth Mallios and Nicole J. Purvis contributed to this article.
For more information, visit http://soap.sdsu.edu, or contact Seth Mallios at smallios@mail.sdsu.edu.

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