Keeper of the Plans

At Wichita bank hangs a century-old piece of local art history

Maquettes for Arthur Covey’s “The Spirit of Kansas” mural at Southwest National Bank on display in front of the finished product, which now hangs behind the teller counter at the bank.
Maquettes for Arthur Covey’s “The Spirit of Kansas” mural at Southwest National Bank on display in front of the finished product, which now hangs behind the teller counter at the bank. The Wichita Eagle

A piece of Wichita art history is on display at Southwest National Bank downtown.

April 7, a public celebration was held in honor of Arthur Covey’s “The Spirit of Kansas,” which has been on public display in the bank, at Douglas and Topeka, since 1975.

Covey, who attended Winfield’s Southwestern College from 1895 to 1896, is posthumously recognized as one of the most prolific muralists of the early 20th century. Later this spring, he will be inducted into the Southwestern College Fine Arts Hall of Fame.

And “The Spirit of Kansas” is the piece that launched his career.

Louise Caldwell Murdock, a noted interior designer and architect, commissioned the mural for Wichita’s yet-to-be-opened public library – now known as the Carnegie Library.

Covey presented three maquettes to Murdock displaying what he intended to paint – and to anyone’s knowledge, those three maquettes were displayed publicly side-by-side for the first time since 1914 during the public celebration earlier this month.

The mural is in three panels – displaying what Covey believed to be the history and future of Kansas.

The first panel, “Promise,” shows a prairie schooner wheeling across the plains, with Western settlers gazing at the land – highlighted by a rainbow.

The middle panel, “Fruition,” shows the achievement of those settlers – the land bearing fruit, factories churning, and the homesteaders generally prospering.

The third panel, “Afterglow,” shows what appears to be Native Kansans being forced out of the state by the settlers – a rather muted depiction, given the bloody nature of the real-life event.

The mural was unveiled in 1915 upon the opening of the Carnegie Library. Louise Murdock died three weeks before the opening of the library – and in her will, she gave her collection of American art as a gift to the city in honor of her husband – hence the Wichita Art Museum’s permanent Roland P. Murdock Collection.

Covey went on to become a noted muralist, quietly – as his second wife, Lois Lenski, a popular children’s book illustrator, gained more public fame than Covey.

Covey painted murals for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, La Guardia Airport, and various murals painted as part of the New Deal in the 1930s.

“He was a towering person,” said Ronnie Jenkins, an advancement officer at Southwestern College. “It’s wonderful to know that this mural still exists. It’s his first mural – one of many. He spent 50 years doing murals and had a fine career.”

The city of Wichita sold the mural to the Naftzger family, of Southwest National Bank, in 1974, when Carnegie was no longer being used as a library. They were bought for $1, “the deal, or steal of the century,” Jenkins said, a deal brokered by Olive Ann Beech.

The family then spent $13,000 restoring the mural panels over a series of weeks. A company from New York spent weeks restoring them in the basement of the then-new Century II.

“It was quite a job,” Jenkins said. “The wear and tear over the years – it had been there almost 60 years in the library.”

The mural was then put on public display at the Naftzgers’ Southwest National Bank in 1975, where it remains today.

When Covey died in 1960, his wife, Lenski, donated more than 200 of his works to Southwestern College.

The college in Winfield will exhibit more than 100 of those pieces from April 20 to May 13 – across four buildings on its campus, because the collection is too large to fit in one gallery.

“The college is happy and fortunate to have the collection,” Jenkins said. “We have no real idea of what his worth is in terms of value of the paintings, because nothing has ever been on the market. Nothing has ever crossed the market. We do know it is valuable to us because it is beautiful and represents a time and a man who came to Southwestern, launched a career from our little college and did great things, but always loved the Midwest.”

For more information on the Covey exhibition at Southwestern College, visit www.sckans.edu/covey.

Matt Riedl: 316-268-6660, @RiedlMatt

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