POCATELLO — A large mural depicting nude human beings exploring a beach surrounded by rock formations that was originally placed above the inside entrance to Reed Gym on the Idaho State University campus in 1963 may not remain there much longer.
ISU Art Department chair Dr. Tony Martin said he has heard rumblings that the Association of Students at ISU, or ASISU, may be looking to take the mural down.
“There are some art students who are trying to form a petition to voice their opinion that it should stay there,” Martin said.
“It was commissioned, and the artist intended to put it there,” Martin said.
That artist was former ISU art professor John B. Davis, and the Davis Gallery in the Fine Arts Building bears his name. Davis served as chairman of the ISU Department of Art for 15 years and was commissioned to do the mural as a multi-project effort with then art professors Don Brown and Ray Obermayr.
Brown, who is now retired from ISU, remembers that time in the early 1960s well.
“The three of us were commissioned to do the work,” Brown said.
Obermayr did a large painting in the Pond Student Union Building and Brown did a glass tile mosaic inside the union. Brown went to work on the 10-foot-by-48-foot mural to be placed over the inside entrance to Reed Gym, according to Brown. The mural was done on canvas and then adhered to the wall.
When the work began, the art department at ISU had just three faculty members, and their department was housed in an old military barracks.
“John called them the lambing sheds,” Brown said.
The inspiration for Davis’ mural came from a historic knowledge of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, and his youth growing up in American Falls, according to Brown. Davis’ father was an attorney who did pro bono work for the tribes.
“John was highly involved in the Idaho landscape,” Brown explained.
The mural in Reed Gym is meant to depict an ancient people exploring the water’s edge in Southeast Idaho.
“That’s one of the reasons they’re nude,” Brown said. “John was honoring their physical fitness. It depicted physically fit humans in their natural environment.”
Whatever the intent of the artist, when the mural went up in 1963 not everyone in the athletic department housed in Reed Gym was happy.
“Some of the people in the athletic department were convinced that people are born fully clothed, and they got upset,” Brown said.
In time, the mural gained acceptance. The only flap came about a decade ago when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints held a summer event on ISU’s campus, according to Brown.
They insisted the mural be covered while the event was taking place.
Brown said it was also curious that the mural received a name that Davis didn’t give it, “Culture.” He added that some members of ASISU nicknamed it the “pickle painting” because a portion of the mural shows a woman holding a green object in her hand.
“I hope they leave it up,” Brown said.
The retired art professor said Pocatello isn’t known for its great artistic appreciation of anything abstract. He said when he created some paintings for a Pocatello Art Walk event several years ago, a couple who had spent time in Israel thanked him for his abstract expressions.
“They told me, ‘It’s nice to see something in Pocatello other than moose and boots,’” Brown recalled.
A graduate student in anthropology at ISU agrees and said she wants the mural to remain at Reed Gym.
“It sounds like a few students were concerned about it (the nudity),” the female student said. “I don’t understand.” She didn’t want to reveal her name.
“It has absolutely nothing to do with the nudity,” said ASISU Arts and Letters Senator Ben Harker. Harker is also the host of KISU’s radio show, “ASISU Speaks.”
“It’s (the mural is) not going to be destroyed or anything,” Harker said. “We really need to get more input. Everything is in the preliminary stage.”
Harker said he understands that students may be concerned because of the way the Benny the Bengal statue in front of Reed Gym and the eroding “I” on Red Hill have been handled. Benny was removed and put in storage this summer. Plans to replace the aging “I” on the hill are still being investigated.
Harker said religious concerns have nothing to do with the fate of the Reed Gym mural.
“It’s more about wanting to promote ISU and women’s sports,” Harker said.