The conclusion of this painting’s 700 mile 20 year round trip is a fitting end to this series of my work and I feel like my summer projects have been finally completed.
A quick backstory on the painting’s subject in case you are catching up on this at the end: The cotylorhynchus is an early Permian synapsid that was first described by OU’s own J. Willis Stovall in 1937. The species name for the specimen found just north of Norman is Romeri for Alfred Romer (1894-1973), the founder and first president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology which now grants the Romer Prize to predoctoral students for work excellence of scientific value and oral presentation at SVP’s annual meeting.
Shead’s 1938 painting is the first attempt at depicting the animal in life and while there are many issues with the interpretations by today’s standards, it stands as a testament to his skill as an artist and the importance of paleoart, even in the 1930s. The painting itself lived in the Stovall Museum until the time came to move into the new building in the late 90s early 2000. There are a few different accounts to where it was found initially, leaning up behind a vacant building, next to the trash receptacle, or similar, but either way it was slated to be discarded. Either room or just it’s own out of date representations of science may have doomed it, but thankfully a cheerful passerby inquired about taking it and it was saved.
I don’t know the names of any of the parties involved at this point, but at least 2 different stories corroborate what happened next: The painting made it’s way to the finder’s brother who was attending A&M down in College Station, Tx and hung in his apartment until he graduated whereupon he presented it to the Biodiversity Research and Teaching Lab. There the “Komodo Dragons” quickly became a staff favorite.
Now, something about this painting if you haven’t made it out by this point is it’s size. The thing is nearly ten and a half feet long and over four feet tall. This wasn’t just swept away under an arm like a folded newspaper. To relocate this thing anywhere required work, and a great deal of it.
Thankfully the powers that be at the research lab agreed to gift the painting back to the Sam Noble where it now nearly completes some semblance of a “set” of what Shead paintings I have been able to track down. A pickup date was scheduled that coincided with a need to transfer some textiles from another collection on the A&M campus to Sam Noble and we were to initially head down sometime between the 28th and the 30th of August.
Poseidon, not being a fan of art or terrestrial fauna, had other plans. Hurricane Harvey, in addition to the immense devastation along the Texas coast, postponed the painting’s return trip. We eventually rescheduled for September 25th and 26th.
Texas A&M is about 357 miles from the University of Oklahoma and after picking up the rental van and removing what seats we could, we loaded it with all our packing and strapping and were finally headed south around 10:30 am.
The next morning we met the Biodiversity Heritage folks and prepared to claim the prize. As if making up for the delay, luck smiled on us in the form of a masonite backing on the painting which made if far easier to secure in the van. Some framing, lashing, and a few knots and it was ready to return to it’s ancestral home.
We picked up the textiles across campus and left College Station nearly exactly 24 hours after we have left Norman. We caught a break in the rain bands when we unloaded the cargo and it is now safely in “the bubble” where it will rest in a type of quarantine for a few weeks before getting it’s frame worked on and joining the other wayward Shead paintings.
Not only is the Cotylorhynchus Norman’s native son, but it is the only painting of Shead’s that we have a photograph of him painting. I don’t think I could ever thank the wonderful folks at A&M enough for agreeing gift it to us. To think that it could be displayed with the photograph of the artist at work gives me an incredible sense of satisfaction with how this whole thing has played out.
Seeing just this sampling of Ralph Shead’s work, now nearly all collected back under one roof, is amazing just from the art and the historical perspective. If these enormous works can ever be displayed together in the same room it would certainly be testament to the power of paleoart and paleoartist–past and present –to still inspire awe in the visitor.
For me, History is filled with people and things. I have never really indulged in the movements and theories and isms that seem to infect the past presently. For a historian this is a professional character defect, for me it is what brings history alive and allows us to find our connections to it. It is likely why I spent so much time learning archaeology and paleontology. I believe it is ultimately what lead me to the history of science so I could talk about all of that at once.
When I first came to OU and was getting settled across campus with the few people I had some connection with I was shown around the Sam Noble Natural History Museum. On the second floor back in the hallway to the VP lab and collections there are these two enormous paintings (13.5 feet long by 3.5 feet high). After taking in the scale and content of these behemoths I immediately looked for the signature. “Ralph B. Shead ’42” and “Ralph B. Shead ’34 (or 39 it is obscured by the frame I believe it is 34).
Who was this artist? What else had he done, and why was he doing these things at this scale? This was years before I started the digitization and scanning project and information was slow in coming. I wouldn’t even find a photo of him for 2 years. When I started scanning and updating an internal manuscript on the history of the museum I gleaned a little more information.
You can see how hard it is to piece this stuff together. Langston missed Shead’s retirement by a few years which is understandable because Langston was working at the National Museum of Canada from 1954-62. Shead stayed at the Museum until 1960 or 61 and he wan’t simply the museum artist. In addition to his museum technician and painting work he served as the Oklahoma sate superintendent for the WPA during the 30s (when the bulk of his work was completed). The WPA records and receipts over in our Western History Collection indicate that some paint and supplies were purchased as part of the “Fossil Bones” project making at least the two paintings upstairs technically WPA art. Through some interesting turn of events another giant (13-footer) painting now resides down at the Texas A&M Biodiversity Heritage prep lab. The irony behind this is that its subject matter is Norman’s native (Permian) son–the Cotylorhynchus.
The Cotylorhynchus painting falls under the WPA years as well and was complete with the aid of a plaster or clay model he created.
Shead also created other plaster models for reference, and I believe he was the one who fashioned/oversaw the plaster for the Procamelus (now Aepyicamelus) skeletal reconstruction that accompanied the skull until it disintegrated.
The bulk of Shead’s work predates the formation of the WPA by a year. They were the “missing” and then “rehomed” paints from the previous two posts. They are also impressive in scale and scope as well, and add three more paleontology paintings to Shead’s portfolio. Ralph’s great-nephew told me that the marine reptiles mural wasn’t one of Ralph’s. Conrad said he was certain that it was a signed just as the Mammoth was, of course the place where his signature would have been was unfortunately damaged when it was removed from the wall. It doesn’t look quite like other works by Shea, and was painted on sheetrock and not canvass like Shed’s other works, but he did paint most everything that was in the museum. If anyone out there has a photo of this with the signature intact please send it along.
The moving of these paintings led to some renewed interest in some old emails and leads that were passed to me for follow up. Chasing down contacts I was able to locate the final “missing” mural that I was aware of living peacefully over in the Geology Graduate offices in Sarkey’s. It is another of Shead’s giants too, this one of a Carboniferous landscape painted in 1938 (during the WPA funded period)
There were also some Shead paintings reportedly hanging out in the microbiology department so I went in search for them. There were three, two in an classroom/lab and one in the herbarium office. These were as surprising as the marine reptile mural because I had never seen mention or reference of them. I photographed them to add to my ever-growin Shead dossier. When I was processing the images later that evening I noticed that there were no signatures on the microscope or fungi ones, but I assumed they had been covered by the frame (looking back now I don’t think that is the case, I just need to look harder).
The other one was even more surprising because while it is a Shead painting, it wan’t painted by Ralph.
I had no idea there *was* a Robert Shead and that added a whole new layer to the simple project of documenting Ralph B. Shead’s work. I found even less on Robert Shead (1908-1999) than his older brother Ralph. Robert had a son who ended up working at an internationally acclaimed interior design firm in Dallas. That son’s, (David LaForge Shead) obituary outlined his work followed in his parents’ footsteps studying art and design at OU. I haven’t been able to track down Robert’s years at OU yet. William Shead confirmed all this and added that Robert had a lucrative interior design company in Oklahoma City. He even served as a designer during his war service years, boasting that he has designed the interior of MacArthur’s private plane. He also confirmed that the fungi and the microscope were Robert Shead paintings and not Ralph’s.
Ralph however received his certificate of art in 1916, 14 years before Stovall arrived at the university, and became *the* name associated with all things museum and paleontology related. David Levy’s The University of Oklahoma: A History, Volume II 1917-1950 only mentions Shead in a single sentence: “Ralph Shead, a professional artist who became a long time employee of the museum, designed displays and created historic murals.” (214). At least two of which include a Jurassic scene and the background for the oreodon exhibit. Not only did Shead paint the background but he did the figure sculpting for the diorama as well.
Pretty short-shrift for someone who produced four 13+ foot paintings, three slightly smaller ones, and served as acting director of the museum between 1952 and 54 (Stovall died in 1953) after the “new” Museum was opened in 1951.
The paleontology paintings aren’t even the largest scale that Shead worked with while painting at OU. There is an enormous geological map of Oklahoma painted with various labor scenes around it that I will be spending some time with next week photographing more completely and attempting to do some digital repairs on it.
Shead wasn’t bound to the art studio during his tenure at the museum. As WPA superintendent part of his work included accompanying the visitors and press to sites worked under WPA funding. Here here is during the “This Project Pays your Community” public tour week in the Cimarron County Dinosaur Quarry.
Similarly, Shead’s fieldwork was not simply administrative. There were times when Shead as a “museum technician” was involved in the dirt of the excavation, and like his paintings he worked with dinosaurs and extinct mammals.
Later in 1941 Shead published a 7 page informational booklet on the Bear Zuni Fetishes from the Spiro Mounds archaeological excavations. Spiro was another scientific University WPA project. OU Anthropology students Shawn Lambert and Lucius Martin presented a poster highlighting the OU WPA artists and their illustrations for the Spiro project and publications. Interestingly this poster hangs in the same paleontology hall as the first two Shead paintings that I saw.
While I was working on this collection of Shead work, I contacted his great nephew William who not only lives in Norman, but lives at the original Shead address. The original house burned in the 1930s and the current house is a gorgeous faux adobe Mexican colonial partially designed by Ralph with the interior designed by Robert. It is definitely my favorite house in Norman.
I spent the afternoon surrounded by even more of Ralph’s art in his old house catching up on the Shead family history which is as fascinating as I had figured and in a surreal way similar to threads of my mother’s side of my family. Just to add all the smaller pieces of Shead’s work here to what is part of the University it is obvious that Shead painted all the time. Some of these landscapes are from the areas in the panhandle area which William said Shead really liked. I am going to make it a habit of visiting more often and next time I will have my big camera, but for now, having all of Ralph’s extant work together, even if it is just digitally. is a pretty fulfilling feat. There is at least one more that was given to a family psychologist friend. Either set of these would be an impressive portfolio, when lumped together is simply staggering.
Most are normal “house-art” sized (16×20 or so) except the Mexican scene, it is at least 48×60. I want to try and get some better photos of at least that one for a print.
I don’t know much more about the artist that was born in New Madrid, Missouri in 1892; What was he up to between 1916 and 1933 when he started painting for Stovall and the museum? Shead’s WWI draft card lists him as a school teacher in Jenks in June of 1917. William said he thought Shead was pursuing a master’s degree in art in Indiana before the family called him home to help during the depression. A few newspapers have him exhibiting art at the Herron Art Museum and the Indiana State Fair. He is mentioned as living in Indianapolis with his brother Walter (newspaper reporter) in the reports of Laurance’s death in 1933. An article in the Inianapolis Star (January 8, 1935) lists Shead as having attended Washington University in St. Louis, MO, the Grand Central School of art, and the School of Design in New York. It mentions his OU museum murals and a potrait of Bishop Francis Kelly of the Catholic diocese of Tulsa and Oklahoma City which all seem to have been completed in 1934.
His plans to return to Indianapolis in 1935 changed when he became the WPA Oklahoma state superintendent that same year. When the WPA folded, Shead became the assistant director of the University Museum, serving as “acting director” from 1952 to 1954 when the Hungarian-born archaeologist Stephan Francis Borhegyi took over the museum directorship.
According to William Eugene Hollon’s A History of the Stovall Museum of Science and History (1956), during the late 1940s through the early years of the 1950s Shead was the only full-time museum employee. He serve as assistant director and head of exhibit preparation at the renamed Stovall Museum until he retired in 1960. He continued to paint the rest of his life finally laying down his brush in 1969.
Shead is buried next to his parents and brother (not Robert) in the the St. Joseph’s Catholic section of the Norman IOOF cemetery on Porter St. in Norman, less than 50 yards from J. Willis Stovall and his wife. There is an American Legion medallion next to his headstone. There were even a story tied to the headstone.
The large Shead stone was created by Shead’s father James. He was skilled with concrete and decorative planters and birdbaths are part of the front garden at the house.
The family stories are not without tragedy either. The brother Laurance that is buried here was a fairly successful theatre manager at the Garden Theatre in Paterson, New Jersey who was known to help anyone down on there luck. One such patron, a prospective singer from Georgia named Louis Kenneth Neu took advantage of his kindness, accompanied Laurance to his apartment for a party, and eventually hit him from behind with an iron and stole his wallet. Laurance died of his injuries and Ney was later apprehended and executed in New Orleans for the murder of Laurence Shead and a wealthy Tennessee businessman.
Their mother Mary is, so far, the longest-lived Shead, and her story ties the family to one of the most significant geological stories in North America. Her Father’s Grandfather, a LaForge survived the New Madrid Earthquake only to catch pneumonia from wading through the slush that was once his farmland when the Mississippi River flooded. He later succumbed to his illness ultimately making him another victim of the quake.
His surviving work is impressive by any standard, and that isn’t taking into account all the already (really) lost “displays” and “historic murals” that served as backdrops for all the dioramas throughout the museum. His work isn’t simply art or background, paleontology or archaeology. His work crisscrossed all aspects of the museum, its collections, and ever expanding subject areas (which I think is why I have been drawn to finding out more about him). They also remain some of the strongest physical links to the history of the university museum outside of the collection artifacts themselves.
Some time back (2 years!) I began a project at our natural history museum to scan, digitize, archive, collect all of the images and negatives that were in our Vertebrate Paleontology collection. Thousands of images later a couple things really stand out: The importance of the WPA in the growth of out collections (see WPAleontology) and a couple of large paintings had disappeared since the late 30s and early 40s.
Ralph Shead was the painter and more than one link in the WPA paperwork trail throughout his tenure at the museum. There are two of his enormous murals hanging upstairs on the Paleo floor (off public display). You may recognize the layout of the one, he copied the styles of some of the more famous Peabody productions. I particularly like the IguanoFonz.
Working through all of the old photographs of the old museum on campus I began to see bits other artwork captured in the background such as the bottom of this mammoth mural just above the Procamelus reconstruction. This was the bottom of the painting, I had seen the corner of in the photo at the top.
A quick aside: everything but the skull here was plaster and disintegrated during a move, the skull is currently on display in the museum and it is now Aepyicamelus)
Back to the murals. Armed with bits of the scene like the one above I started trying to track down where it could be. From the available scale clues, this one is about 4×6 feet, but that is just a guess. One of the photos appears to show it as a canvas, and no where is is shown frames like the others, so it could have been rolled up and forgotten I suppose. I have had no luck tracking it down, but I did manage to find better photos of the entire thing.
While I was trying to track down the mammoth mural I found copies of two more murals that are also MIA. They appear to be the same size as the two extant murals in the Paleo hallway and if that is the case they are somewhere in the vicinity of 4×12 feet. They also show the same wooden frames on them.
Our vert paleo curator said that he thought the Carboniferous Forest one had been sent to one of the Texas Panhandle colleges years ago (before he got there). I contacted the collections managers at Texas Tech and the Panhandle Plains museum, but neither knew anything about them.
The final one is my favorite and the one I am most sad we don’t have. I would love to see it in the real in full color glory. There isn’t even a full good quality photo of the entire thing. Just the bad xerox copy, and some details. I don’t know the date on the mammoths or the carboniferous forest but in the detail of the Pliocene horses you can see a 3, so it was done in the 30s. The two extant ones were completed in 34 and 41 (the frame obscures the final digit in the dates, but this is what they appear to be), so it is likely they were all produced around the same time. The WPA receipts in the Western History Collection show paints and supplies so these are in fact WPA murals.
This is one of those times I really wish my readership was large enough to get hundreds of eyes looking for these. There may not be a living soul that knows anything about them, but there may be someone who has seen them and doesn’t know how they got there. They both appear to have been hanging somewhere above a wainscot, possibly in what was the first or second iteration of the museum. I hold out hope that they are still somewhere, and I suppose summer is the best time to go Scooby Doo-ing around the old buildings to try and find them.