The mural is tucked away in a locked second-floor storage closet at the old Moorhead High School. Even with a key to get into the cramped room, you can’t see the whole canvas unless you climb down the little ladder behind a makeshift partition constructed years ago.
But once there — and if you ignore the aluminum air duct overhead — you’ll see a work of art that takes your breath away, Brian Cole said.
That’s why the orchestra teacher at Horizon Middle School in Moorhead, Minn., has led the charge to move the massive oil-on-canvas painting from the Townsite Center condominiums to a new home — so everyone can admire the vibrant depiction of Minnesota pioneers trekking along their trade route.
“Art needs to be seen,” Cole said.
Making the mural more visible could be tricky. The local school district brought in Rita Berg from the Midwest Art Conservation Center in Minneapolis last month to start assessing the feasibility of transferring the 12- by 8-foot canvas to the middle school’s new auditorium.
“Murals aren’t meant to be removed from their walls, really,” Berg said.
But she and her colleagues are going to see if they can find a way to do so without damaging the art. “It’s the only way to make the painting available for future generations,” Berg said.
The colorful canvas has adorned the same wall since Christmas break 1939, when it was painted by Lucia Wiley as part of a Works Progress Administration commission.
Men barter in the foreground, discussing the details of an exchange, likely involving furs. In the background, two others tinker with the wooden wheel on their covered wagon. Titled “Making Camp on the Red River Trail,” the composition portrays a snapshot of an oft-traveled journey in the 19th century made by traders tramping back and forth between St. Paul and Winnipeg, Manitoba.
That local connection was part of the reason Cole found the painting so alluring.
“It wasn’t something that was depicting life in Europe or something in the Southwest,” he said. “It was depicting something that took place in Fargo-Moorhead.”
Hundreds of students passed by the mural daily on their way to class in the decades after it went up on the wall above the school’s southwest stairwell.
“I can’t imagine the number of hands that touched it, the pencil lead that accidentally scraped across it,” Cole said.
When the high school changed locations in the 1960s, the old building was eventually sold and redeveloped into condominiums. Somewhere along the line, a remodel veiled the mural, and the artwork in the tiny closet slowly began to fade from people’s memories.
A second WPA mural painted by another artist hangs on the southeast stairwell, a prime position.
“Everyone in town who’s ever been in the building knew about that one,” Cole said.
The same can’t be said about Wiley’s work, said Pam Gibb, communication coordinator for the Moorhead school district, who used to have an office in the building.
“It kind of got forgotten about upstairs,” she said.
If Cole’s plan works, that will change. He’s seeking to fund the project, which could cost thousands of dollars, through grants, business sponsorships and individual donations. In the meantime, Berg said conservators will test a variety of cleaning techniques and mechanical methods for removing the canvas to see if it will be possible to take it down without destroying it.
Within a couple of years, Wiley’s painting could become a part of students’ school-day routines once again.
“I think it’s a piece that we can say all generations of our city have seen,” Cole said. “That’s why I’m really anxious to get it up into the public view.”