Article and images by Diane Drobka
Supporters and patrons from Duncan, Greenlee County and beyond celebrated “history in the making” on August 4 as the newly restored Hal Empie mural “Greenlee” was rehung at the Duncan school cafeteria. Dozens – including Empie’s son Joel, daughter Ann and son-in-law Peter, both of Tubac – admired the magnificent piece that chronicles local history in its sweeping landscape.
The giant painting was recently preserved through an exhausting 12-week “labor of love” by professional fine art conservator and artist Sharlette “Charlie” Burton of Tucson, who tracked her progress throughout the painstaking project with weekly photos and posts on a Facebook page called Empie Mural Restoration.
Another major player throughout the mural’s restoration was Fred Soto, owner of Fred Soto’s Custom Stretching in Tucson, who Burton recruited early on in the project soon after the mural was taken down.
“I also had him come up after I had done all the difficult repairs of flattening and consolidating the dents. I had Fred re-stretch the canvas and then we put foam core on the back to give some support and help keep the mural flat,” she noted.
The restoration project was made possible by the tireless efforts of the Preservation, Restoration In Duncan’s Enhancement (P.R.I.D.E.) Society, formed in 2001 to preserve and enhance the overall image and historic value of the small, close-knit community.
P.R.I.D.E.’s fundraising brought in $10,000, partly through a raffled Empie print donated by the Hal Empie Gallery in Tubac. The Freeport-McMoRan (FMI) Copper & Gold Foundation generously supported the project through a $13,000 grant. P.R.I.D.E. received a $1,250 grant from the Arizona Community Investment Fund and $1,000 through the Greenlee County Board of Supervisors.
The painting – 27 feet long and five feet high – chronicles local history beginning on the left with Coronado and his Spanish Conquistadors arriving in what would become Greenlee County. The scene progresses to the right, showing indigenous Apaches watching the pioneers arrive.
Important industries – cattle ranching, copper mining and farming – are prominently featured, as well as a progression of transportation from horses and wagons to trains and autos.
The mural was a personal triumph for Empie because of its beauty and uniqueness. Admittedly, the project was a much greater challenge than he had anticipated, but that made it all the more appealing to him. He created the mural in an empty building across the street from his art gallery and drug store. It took him 580 hours and 50 pounds of paint to complete his masterpiece.
Most murals are painted on cement or stone walls in place whereas Empie chose imported Belgian canvas for the painting, which depicts an amazing 40 characters, capturing people, plants, animals and landmarks familiar to southeastern Arizona residents.
“I was very young, but I remember dad working on sketches for the mural,” commented his daughter, Ann Groves of Tubac. I thought it was really neat that there were animals in cages in dad’s studio! Mom collected anything he asked for and brought them for him to sketch … even a horned toad!
The gathering to witness the restored mural’s hanging continued throughout the afternoon. Joel Empie shared stories about helping his dad with ideas for his famous “Kartoon Kards” and by collecting cockleburs to place in cardboard match boxes that were sold as “Porcupine Aiggs” at his drug store. Empie postcards from the 1930s to the 50s were passed around and enjoyed.
“I have great memories of the time I spent with my dad, especially our travels together … he always got inspiration for his postcards and paintings on the road,” he said. “I am so happy that this amazing work of art is now preserved to honor his legacy.”
P.R.I.D.E. member Doug Barlow echoed his love and appreciation of Empie’s work. “We all grew up loving Hal Empie. In grade school, we didn’t know he was an artist; we just knew he drew pictures. And he would let us – up to 50 kids – hang out in his drug store and read comic books that we couldn’t afford to buy.”
And those memories are what inspired Barlow to propose the restoration project to Groves. The fundraising soon began. The mural was taken down on May 27, 2014, and restored while school was not in session. It welcomed students as they returned to classes as it has for the past 60 years.
The Duncan Public Schools Board of Trustees commissioned Empie to paint the mural in 1953 for a mere $600. It was unveiled March 13, 1954, before a crowd of more than 250 citizens. It was soon hailed by a Phoenix art critic as “one of the greatest masterpieces of the Southwest” and it remains so to this day. It is reported to be the second largest mural in the Southwest.
It is considered a true artistic and historical treasure by Empie, a pharmacist who became a world-renowned artist. Original Empie paintings are housed in the Smithsonian Institute and National Museum of American History and Archive Center.
The P.R.I.D.E. Society of Duncan invites everyone to attend the rededication of Hal Empie’s “Greenlee” mural on Saturday, October 18, at 2:00 p.m. at the Duncan School Cafeteria. For those unable to attend that day, the cafeteria will be open on Friday, October 17, from 1:00 until 6:00 p.m. to allow viewing of the mural.
Diane Drobka is a freelance writer.