Lost Memphis: Maysie Dimond's Murals at Ellis Auditorium
photo courtesy Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries
A few years ago, I wrote a wonderful, amazing, thrilling article that I called "Pieces of the Past" — about all sorts of architectural artifacts that had been saved when landmarks were demolished, but managed to find new homes in new buildings. Surely you remember it? It was all the rage at the Pulitzers that year.
In that story, I mentioned some of the medallions and even chairs that had been rescued from Ellis Auditorium. But I didn't discuss the remarkable murals that had painted by Memphis artist Maysie Dimond, so you get to read about those — and her — right here.
I might as well tell you that over the years, this woman's name has been spelled Maysie, Mayze, Mayzie and Diamond, Diament, and Dimond, but I'm going with the spelling that she seemed to prefer: Maysie Dimond.
Maysie was born around 1900 in Jackson, Mississippi, and came to Memphis in the 1930s when her husband, A.C., became a superintendent at the Navy Yard here. While raising two children, she began attending the Memphis Academy of Arts and trained under talented instructors like Katherine Forest and Dorothy Sturm.
She first made the news in November 1937 when the Memphis Press-Scimitar reported that a nice painting she made of the little community of Dyess, Arkansas, would be presented to Eleanor Roosevelt. The newspaper explained that "Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt has long been interested in the Dyess Colony because it was one of the country's first resettlement projects." The colony offered free land to impoverished farmers during the Depression, and one of the folks who grew up there was a talented fellow named Johnny Cash. Perhaps you've heard of him.
Anyway, that's Maysie shown here, next to the painting she gave to Eleanor Roosevelt. I wonder where this is today? Hmmmm.
In 1940, the city somehow got a grant from the federal government's Works Progress Administration (WPA) to add some festive murals to Ellis Auditorium. Maysie got the job, and it was quite a project: 10 murals stretching more than 150 feet along the north wall of the auditorium. Although the local newspapers noted that she "received no artistic training since coming to Memphis," she must have been an apt pupil, becasue three "models" of the first murals were sent to the American Federation of the Arts. The AAF president commented, "It is an excellent piece of work and reflects great credit on Memphis."
The project took Maysie 18 months. The first three panels featured the Chickasaw Indians, Hernando DeSoto, and city founders John Overton, Marcus Winchester, and Andrew Jackson. The hardest part was deciding what to include next. The Press-Scimitar noted, "Her trouble, for covering the period of the last 120 years, is not in finding subjects for the remaining seven panels, but in narrowing the field of subjects down."
I'm assuming, of course, that one entire panel was devoted to the Lauderdales. That's a given.
The finished piece, rather blandly titled "Memphis in Murals" was unveiled during a Memphis Symphony concert on November 14, 1942. A reporter called it "four hundred years of Memphis history, written in gay colors and spirited symbols, in a great mural nine feet high and half a block long." They remained visible for about a decade. In the 1950s, during one of those ill-conceived "civic improvement projects" that seem to plague Memphis, Maysie's murals were covered up with slabs of pink marble.
In 1984, the old murals were uncovered when the auditorium was renovated. They had already been damaged over the years when extra doors were punched through the walls, and gluing those big slabs of marble to them certainly didn't help. Archeologist Guy Weaver told me that Memphis Heritage wanted to salvage them, but they couldn't be removed from the walls, since they were apparently painted directly onto the concrete. By all accounts, the murals were demolished, along with the rest of Ellis Auditorium, when the building was torn down to make way for the new Cannon Center.
PHOTO COURTESY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS LIBRARIES