Artists La Force Bailey (1893-1962) and senior art students created this mural-an 8' x 43' oil painting on canvas. The mural currently resides in the map room of the Natural Resources Building, room 439.
The Depression-era mural in the Natural Resources Building map room reflects a major change of taste since Barry Faulkner had painted his four library murals some six or so years earlier. Innocuous embellishment and anecdotal classical imagery no longer appealed or seemed appropriate to a public severely affected by 1930s economic chaos, and in this canvas, as if in answer to workers' yearnings, heroic, hard-toiling men wrest minerals from the fecund earth, refine them, and put them to use for humanity's benefit. Optimism is expressed, the dignity of labor extolled, and the beauty of common folk celebrated.
La Force Bailey, an art professor, and six seniors in art prepared the 43-foot-long work for the Illinois Mineral Resources and Commodities display at the Century of Progress Exposition, Chicago, 1933-34. It shows workmen engaged in industries rooted in the natural wealth of the state-brick and tile, concrete and steel construction, coal mining and steel manufacture. It was later brought back to campus and installed in the new structure housing the geological and natural history surveys (1939). In order for it to conform to the room's smaller dimensions, modifications had to be made: twenty-four inches were cut from the central portion to fit around the doorway and the mural was bent at the side walls, creating three segments and diminishing the original panoramic sweep. Besides that, the four enormous fluorescent light fixtures hanging before it further limit continuity and obscure details.
Still, The Mineral Kingdom and Its Effect upon Society is impressive, an art object described in its time as "unusually fine," "inspiring," and "modernistic and in keeping with the rest of the Fair." Copper-hued and covering the upper half of a relatively limited space, it is a scene crowded with bricklayers, steelworkers, machinists, carpenters, coal miners, engineers, and draftsmen of diverse ethnicity, age, and race working in a tangle of blast furnaces, derricks, beams, girders, vehicles, dynamos, and locomotives.
Multitudinous activities occur simultaneously, but because of the nearly monochromatic color scheme of closely related metallic tones, the bold design's overall effect is unfrenzied, quiet. The copper tonality does more than act as a unifying agent. It underscores one of the painting's major themes: the significance of heat in transforming raw materials into fabricated products. Bailey told of the great amount of time spent arranging colors "to bring out the heat theory in full force." Heat was an element so important to the manufacturing process, he pointed out, that every object in the composition radiates it. The artist also gave much attention to the study of scientifically accurate safety and comfort equipment designated for use by factory and mine workers. For instance, in 1939 Bailey had to paint out the obsolete hats in the original version and substitute the most modem, explosion-resistant miners' electric headlamps then recommended.
On the mural's installation in Urbana, the geological survey chief noted with satisfaction that the painting reflect.ed the greatness of the manufacturing industry and its giving rise, he said, to increased employment and higher standards of living. "The mural as an exhibit of art has been highly complimented by various artists in the country. Colors are in keeping with the mass of detail and are beautiful, and the geological survey is very proud to have the mural for its library."
Bailey studied with Charles W. Hawthorne and at the University of Illinois, where he taught from 1934 to 1960. Known among those assisting him on the mural were Richard E. Hult, who also joined the art faculty, specializing in portraiture; Harley McKee, later a professor of architecture at Syracuse University and an adviser on materials to the National Park Service; and V. S. Etler, whose painting of a steelworker hangs in a nearby fourth-floor office.