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Grosse Pointe News

Ronald J. Bernas

It was more than 51 years ago when Edgar Louis Yaeger was commissioned by the Works Progress Administration to paint three murals for Cleminson Hall at Grosse Pointe South High School.

Last week, Yaeger, 86, returned to South to repair one of the panels which had been damaged, and to sign the work which until now had been unsigned. According to Yaeger’s agent, John Joseph Jr., Yaeger was at his peak in popularity at the time of the commission, having shown his work in such prestigious galleries as the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. and twice within two years at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

At the time, the commission for the Grosse Pointe High School was considered among the top honors and one artist offered to paint the three panels for free, just to have his work as part of the school. But it was Yaeger, whose panels depict various symbols and people associated with education, who was chosen.

Preliminary watercolors of what Yaeger wanted to paint were submitted to the Works Progress Administration, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s program designed to bring art to public buildings.

“Normally, preliminary sketches were kept (by the WPA), but Yaeger hid the originals in his attic,” Joseph said.

Yaeger also made clay models of the proposed work. What happened to them?

“I smashed them,” Yaeger said. “I got tired of all that junk being around.”

Today, the Kresge Museum in Lansing is collecting the preliminary sketches, and photographs of hands and models Yaeger used to work from for a special exhibit on the making of a mural.

The canvas-on-plywood panels were painted elsewhere and moved to South. For his efforts, Yaeger was paid $20 a week. Yaeger donated his services for the repair work.

Yaeger signed the work amid flashbulbs, and seemed a little shy, asking whether it was big enough, and what year he should sign on it. He settled in 1939-1990.
The right panel, depicting a Roman scribe, was damaged by someone who tried to wash it, Yaeger says. He is repairing it in the way he did the original, with paint he ground himself.

Still going strong, Yaeger is working on a mosaic for a church. That will add to his work hanging in public buildings throughout the Detroit area, including at the Brodhead Naval Armory, the Public Lighting Commission Building, Children’s Hospital of Detroit, and the University of Michigan’s Men’s Union Dormitory, now known as West Quad.

“This is kind of nice,” Yaeger said of all the attention he received last week. “It is something different.”

The restoration is being done prior to a special program at Grosse Pointe South High at 7 p.m. Monday, March 5, honoring Yaeger and installing a plaque marking the murals. The reception is sponsored by the Mothers’ and Dads’ clubs at South.

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