Filed Under Art

We the People: The Land-Grant College Heritage, 1987

Artist Billy Morrow Jackson (1926- ) created this artwork, which is an oil painting on panel. The 4' x 6' painting is displayed in the reception to the Office of the President in the Henry Administration Building. It was acquired through the John Needles Chester Fund.

The Federal Land-Grant College Act, known also as the Morrill Act, passed by Congress in 1862, gave the states public lands to establish colleges offering studies in engineering, agriculture, and home economics, as well as traditional academic courses. Emphasizing practicality and the liberal education of the "industrial classes," the Act created 130 major colleges and universities, in every American state and most of its territories. This painting celebrates the system's democratic, innovative programs, and its rich heritage of cultural and pragmatic learning.

Three historic individuals dominate the scene. Illinois native Jonathan Baldwin Turner, to the left, spoke up for the idea that working people had to increase their knowledge if they wanted to rise above their "present terrible conditions." His belief that agricultural reform could come through public education provided the basis for the Land-Grant Act. Abraham Lincoln, in the center, holds the bill he signed into law. Justin Smith Morrill, the congressman from Vermont who sponsored the legislation, stands to the right. He worked out details, obligating new institutions to provide instruction in the mechanic arts, in agriculture, and-reflecting the Civil War still being fought-in military training, "without excluding other scientific and classical studies."

Crowding the lower portion of the panel, many figures illustrate enduring aspects of university life. They busily climb stacks of books to reach their goals, reach out to help others along the way, and engage in pursuits as diverse as painting, astronomy, music, surveying, computer science, farming, and mathematics. Lorado Taft's Alma Mater welcomes incoming generations of students, gathering casually in the space behind her, while from the other side, an orderly procession of graduates emerges. Other images include grain elevators, cattle, planes, sea divers, astronauts, Altgeld Hall, the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, and the Beckman Institute.

Naturalistic and sharply defined, as is typical for Jackson's work, the composition nonetheless conveys an almost surrealist disequilibrium. Yet its disconnected activities and its figures of various sizes tell a lively story, help create spatial recession, and paradoxically work well with the three main characters, whose cropped-off heads make clear that Turner, Lincoln, and Morrill are larger than life, not to be confined within an ordinary picture frame.

A prolific graphic artist and painter, Jackson has depicted a broad range of subject matter throughout his career. Numerous institutions own his work, among them the National Gallery of Art, the Library of Congress, and the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C.; the Metropolitan Museum ofArt in New York; the Union League Club of Chicago; the First of America Bank and the Busey Bank in Urbana-Champaign; and the Krannert Art Museum on the university campus. He is an emeritus professor of art at the university.


general view of "We The People..." Image courtesy ExploreCU team


364 Henry Administration Building 505 S Wright St, Urbana, IL 61801


Muriel Scheinman, “We the People: The Land-Grant College Heritage, 1987,” ExploreCU, accessed June 30, 2022,