The Callicott Murals


The Great Depression began with the stock market crash on October 27, 1929 and lasted until the production boom that accompanied the onset of World War II. Franklin Delano Roosevelt developed the federal New Deal programs in 1933. These programs became the “alphabet soup” agencies, created with the intent to stimulate the economy, help the unemployed and reform the country’s financial system. One of these New Deal programs was the Civil Works Administration (CWA). The CWA formed under the auspices of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), to create temporary jobs for the unemployed. The first federally funded program to help artists was the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), which began in December 1933. The basic premise of the program was that artists should have the same production and public value standards as laborers in other CWA projects. Artists were recruited through ads in newspapers and had to prove that they were professional artists who passed a financial needs test. The only guidance about subject matter was that artists should consider the “American scene” as a suitable topic. Painters and sculptors applied for commissions and received classifications as either “A” or “B” artists based on ability, training and past work. Ten Memphis artists received commissions. The PWAP preceded the better known Works Progress Administration (WPA) by more than a year. The WPA also funded artists, writers and entertainers.


Burton Callicott was born in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1907. He trained as a sculptor at the Cleveland School of Art, graduated in 1931 and moved to Memphis. Callicott’s stepfather was Michael (Mike) Abt, the director of the western division of Tennessee’s CWA/PWAP committee. Callicott was classified as an “A” artist, which meant that he was to be paid $42.50 per week. He received a commission to paint a single-panel mural showing De Soto’s exploration of West Tennessee for the center alcove above the Pink Palace Museum’s lobby staircase. Callicott suggested painting the mural as a fresco, but the committee wanted it done on canvas so that they could remove it later if they wanted. He researched the subject matter and spent the next several weeks sketching The Coming of De Soto, which includes officers on horseback, foot soldiers, dogs and Death, as symbolized by the figure with the skeletal hand. He finished the pencil drawing in January 1934. The committee then asked forsketches for two more panels. In February, Callicott completed the left panel, Conflict with the Indians. It depicts a symbolic conflict between the invading Spaniards and the Indians. He finished the drawing for the right panel, The Discovery of the Mississippi River, in spring 1934. Instead of depicting a joyous triumph, Callicott chose to paint the scene as a sober event filled with tired men faced with a physical barrier. He also alluded to De Soto’s death on the other side of the river by having the shape of the tree line on the Arkansas side echo the shape of the prone figure at the top of the Conflict with the Indians panel.

PP exhibits 1-25-06 039

Callicott and Harry Dixon, his assistant, began painting the first mural in summer 1934. The men built canvas stretchers on the lobby floor and then attached the panels to the wall. Callicott used a chalk snap line to create one foot sections on the canvas. He then used his pencil drawings, divided into one-inch squares, to copy and enlarge the design onto the canvas panels. Callicott used charcoal for the outlines on the canvas. The colors were chosen to harmonize with the existing lobby. Dixon color mixed the large quantities of oil paint that they needed. He stored the paint in toothpaste tubes so that it wouldn’t dry out. It took about six weeks to finish the first mural. The Park Commission never reimbursed the men for the materials they purchased, which meant that they had to pay for paint, canvases and stretchers out of their PWAP stipend. Each remaining mural took about six weeks to paint, which means that the entire project took about one year—including drawing time and bureaucratic delays.

In November 1984, the Pink Palace hosted a reception for Callicott marking the 50th anniversary of the murals. The museum presented him a check for $167.80 for the cost of the materials he bought to produce the murals. Callicott decided to donate the money back to the museum to start a restoration fund for the murals. In early 1995, the murals were restored and framed as Burton Callicott had originally recommended.

Much of this information came from an oral history done with Callicott in 1984 and from Mary Montgomery, Robert Dalton and Ron Brister’s 1984 article “Burton Callicott and the De Soto Murals.”


The Skunks’ Saga

In October 1955, a de-scented skunk was donated to the museum for use in educational children’s programs. Mrs. Bush, the museum director, held a contest at the first children’s program of the season to name the skunk. The Museum Advisory Board chose Holmes Ryan’s suggestion of Rosebud as the winner, and he was given a copy of The Golden Treasury of Natural History as his prize.

Rosebud lived in a cage on the museum yard, but she escaped in March 1956. A story and picture ran in the Press-Scimitar newspaper that Charley Scott found a tame skunk in his East Memphis backyard. When Raymond Gray, the superintendent of the Memphis Zoo, saw the skunk’s picture in the paper, he  said it was probably a pet and told Mrs. Bush about the animal. She went to Scott’s house to pick up Rosebud “by the scruff of the neck and head back to the museum.” Rosebud made a final escape a year later, but this time she was either killed by a dog or a car.

She was replaced by a male named Rosebuddy. He made his television debut in November 1956 on the WKNO programs “Just Before Bedtime” and “Fignewton.” He was a regular monthly visitor on the show, and the Museum’s children’s program of the month was advertised at the same time. He also made an appearance on “Know Your Government” where he shared the screen with Mrs. Bush and members of the Advisory Board.

When Rosebuddy died, he was replaced by a final Rosebud. Mrs. Bush noted that on one memorable occasion one of the skunks bit a child at a museum program, but the child’s mom elected not to cause any problems for the museum. The skunks also made visits to segregated science programs at LeMoyne College.



Memphis’ First Museum

The first museum in Memphis was a room on the second floor of the tower over the entrance to the Cossitt Library. The Cossitt Library was completed in 1893 and was funded though the bequest of Frederick Cossitt. Cossitt was a Connecticut born entrepreneur who maintained a wholesale dry goods business in Memphis until the Civil War. He promised his friend Carrington Mason that he would make a gift of a public library to the city. When he died in 1887, his will did not include the Memphis library, but his heirs decided to give money for the building anyway.

Cossitt Library 1893
The library’s statement of purpose specified that the Cossitt Library was “To establish and maintain a free public Museum…” As part of this objective, after the 1897 Tennessee Centennial celebration, the elite Memphis women who had composed the city’s Centennial Board and the wives of the library’s board of directors came together to form the Cossitt Library Museum Association. The Centennial Board had developed an exhibition in Nashville’s Centennial Park, paid for by Shelby County tax revenue. After the exhibition, the county donated the cases from the exhibit to the library, and the ladies created the ad hoc museum in an unused upstairs room.
Memphians contributed a wide array of curios to the small museum. Some of the donated objects were a painted ostrich egg, leaves from a tree next to George Washington’s tomb, an assortment of minerals, a splinter from one of Napoleon’s ships and objects from China. Mrs. Carrington Mason made one of the largest donations to the museum in 1903 when she gave her son Elliston’s collection of prehistoric pottery from Mississippian mound builders. Elliston was the youngest member of the library’s board before his death in 1901. He had paid two men to dig up the pieces from the Wappanoka, AR mound over a fifteen year period. Due to its size, only a third of the collection was on display. The estate of explorer and hunter Paul Rainey donated another group of objects after his death in 1923. Rainey was an African game hunter, a pioneer in the field of photography and known for lassoing a polar bear put on display at the Bronx zoo.
When the Pink Palace opened in 1930, the museum’s Advisory Board voted to accept the transfer of the Cossitt Library collection into the new city museum. Several objects from the original Cossitt Collection are still in the Pink Palace’s collection including the Mason pottery and a narwhal tusk and Arctic artifacts from the Rainey collection.