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Proposal for Rikers Island Mural

Submitted by Harold Lehman to the Municipal Art Commission of New York City on February 1, 1937, which led to them giving him this assignment. 

Location: The East Wall

Dimensions of the Wall to be painted

            Width – 70’

            Height – 20-1/2’


Physical characteristics:


The East Wall is directly opposite as one enters the mess hall.  It is tile-surfaced from floor to ceiling, as are the other walls, and unbroken save for two double-doors situated at right and left center.  It is excellently illuminated by light falling from large windows set in the north and south walls.  For that matter, the natural light in the entire room is more than adequate.  The seating capacity is 850.  When seated all occupants face the east wall.  The tables and attached seats are of monel metal, the floor concrete.  The ceiling is inclined on all four sides, the north and south inclines, reaching an apex in the center running east and west.  The north and south walls are bridged by steel girders at the point where the tiled wall ends.  The general tone of the entire room is – floor and seating arrangements gray and walls and ceiling buff.  The doors are dark gray.




In selecting an appropriate theme for a mural in Rikers Island Penitentiary, the writer has considered certain factors which appear to be peculiarly relevant.  For convenience, these may be grouped under the two headings objective and subjective.

Objective factors:


Of necessity, the first consideration must be the practical character of the mess hall itself.  A very high percentage of the occupants view the wall only from an oblique angle, necessitating the splitting up of the design into compartment-like related units. The wall as a whole is seen adequately by those only in the process of entering and leaving the mess hall.  Also, many of the occupants are seated between fifty and ninety feet from the East wall and have little opportunity to secure a closer view.  Therefore, the painting should be so designed that the idea may be comprehended from a distance as well as close up.  Logically then, comprehension must be simultaneous as well as transitional.  This will necessitate centralizing the idea rather than distributing it.  Due to this and to the immense size of the room (100’ x 70x x 20-1/2’) the figures should be large enough to be seen clearly from a distance.

Subjective factors:


At the outset, the question which naturally arises is  - “What is the primary purpose in painting a mural for Rikers Island Penitentiary?”  (If we first acknowledge the fact that it is painted for the inmates, the answer to this question will be greatly simplified.)  Traditionally, mural painting has always served one of two purposes.  Either it has been frankly decorative or it has been illustrational.  By decorative is meant the painting of a plane surface primarily to relieve the monotony of a simple single-toned wall, without regard to subject matter or other irrelevancies.  This type of wall decoration is essentially primitive and without communicative significance other than esthetic or sensual.


By illustrational, is meant the realistic representation of an incident or related series of incidents in order to convey an idea.  This type of painting is, of course, primarily concerned with meaning.


It follows naturally then, that The Rikers Island mural being planned for the inmates should be so conceived and executed that it will be understood by them.  Since we more readily recognize and understand those things with which we are most familiar, it would appear that the representational type of painting would be the one most suited to this project.  Also, since representation alone can compel very little appreciative response, it must be coupled with meaning or idea to be most effective in its appeal to the spectator.


Important consideration should be given, of course to the mural as a source of pleasure and as a release of energy. In this respect, perhaps nothing could better accomplish this purpose than the counteracting of the severity of the prison architecture, surroundings and routine, by the use of striking contrasts of color, tone and shape, sweeping rhythms, flowing contours and plenty of action in the incidents portrayed.  In short, a dynamic composition.


It would appear axiomatic that a painting designed for a public institution should be related in subject matter to the nature of that institution.  However, in the case of Rikers Island Penitentiary, circumspection seems necessary since a work relating to criminology or penology may have less than a salutary effect on those viewing it.  Rather does it appear that in this particular instance, the most effective theme might possibly be one furthest removed in character from that of penalization, crime, the criminal, etc.  The solution to this problem may possibly be found in the nature of the mess hall itself.  The fact that three times daily the population of the penitentiary gather there to eat suggests that a theme related to this function might be an advantageous one, in that those activities properly related to the production of food would naturally prove stimulating and engage one’s interest.


It is intended therefore to present this theme for consideration, as follows:


Man’s Daily Bread – Activities relating to it and the relation of those to the Family.


There will be presented in the mural three general concepts, relating directly or indirectly to the title.


  1. On the left as one views the wall, will be seen those activities of food production devoted to the planting, growth and harvesting of basic food materials; such as grain, wheat, corn, etc. These, naturally, relate directly to Man’s Daily Bread.  But also, they show the taking from the earth in order to live – constructive activity.

  2. At the right will be presented scenes of coal and iron ore mining, cutting of lumber and the securing of other raw materials.  These will show the taking from the earth in order to build.  Again – constructive activity.


These two concepts converge toward the center of the wall and progress into the third which will portray the development of both types of raw material -- food and minerals into products ready for consumption and use.  This and the right section are related indirectly to Man’s Daily Bread.  They are of course, symbols of labor.  It is through labor that men secure the means to obtain life’s necessities.  It is in this section that the two first-named concepts will fuse and become integrated, one with the other.  For in the part of this section showing the converting of raw materials into finished products there will be one or two workmen partaking of food.  And, in the other part of this section, dealing with the conversion of raw food products into edible goods there will be several workers at machines.  In this way, the activities relating to Man’s Daily Bread will be shown to be not isolated and self-sufficient, but interdependent units functioning as a related homogeneous activity.


But, this is not enough.  In order to suggest the completion of this idea, it is necessary to show the purpose, the motive impulses behind these various activities.  It is necessary to show for whom man labors.  At the top center, then, the entire theme will be shown to culminate in the idea of the family.  For it is the family which provides the impulse for most of man’s activity, and it is the family that is the basis of most human relationships.


Another reason for incorporating the idea of the family into the design is that it is the family relationship, particularly that of the Mother, which appeals most strongly to the greatest number of men.  (The psychiatrist of Elmira Reformatory, Dr. Rene¢ Breguet, has informed the writer that one of the most universal traits of the inmates at the institution is the fact that they retain their concern and deep regard for their mothers.)


Another important feature the design will present, as part of the progression of idea in each section, certain natural obstacles to the desired achievement which are ultimately overcome.


In the left section, the progression will be as follows:


  1. Plowing the ground

  2. Planting the seed.

  3. Growth of the plant.

  4. Interference with the growth, such as dust storm, drought, etc. (In this part people will be shown working together to save the crops.  This is to suggest the value of cooperating with others for the common good.)

  5. Harvesting the crop.  The final triumph of man over nature.


To complement this, a similar progression will take place in the right section which deals with raw materials.  In the manner:


  1. Digging in the mines for coal, ore, etc., felling trees for lumber, etc.

  2. Amassing the materials

  3. Obstacles such as natural mine accidents, fired oil wells etc.  (Here will be shown men working together to undo the damage in the mines, collectively checking the flames, etc.)

  4. The raw materials finally secured and become finished usable good.


Color will be used as an integral part of the idea in each section.  At the left, in accordance with the progression of growth, the color will begin cool and become increasingly warmer until, in the harvesting part, it shall have become a symphony of reds, yellows, browns, russets, and orange – Fall colors.  This will also help to give the suggestion of time – from early Spring to Fall.


In the right section, the opposite progression will ensue.  From the warm rock and earth, the color will become gradually cooler until there emerges the cold texture of the finished product.


The bottom central section will partake of both cold and warm harmonies in consonance with its function of unifying the right and left sections


The Family section above this will be predominately warm in tone, to suggest the atmosphere of the home.


The essence of this theme will be seen to be constructive, cooperative activity directed toward worthwhile ends.


It may be noted here that the writer has conferred with Dr. Frank L. Christian, Supt. Of Elmira Reformatory, regarding this projected mural and that he has expressed his approval of the theme as outlined above.


In conclusion, the writer wishes to state that the painting of the mural need in no way interfere with institutional activity.

Harold Lehman

Received by the Municipal Art Commission of New York City on February 1, 1937.

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