Peering behind the pegboard panels above a chalkboard in the KBIA/91.3 FM office, Program Director John Bailey believed he had found a Thomas Hart Benton.
The mural depicted an art class with a male model surrounded by a semi-circle of seated students. Bailey said it had the same sculptural quality of the works of the famous Missouri-born Regionalist painter. But closer scrutiny found that the artist was actually an MU graduate.
The mural carries the signature of a James Hatfield and is now believed to be the work of a Missouri alumnus by that name, Bailey said. It was first uncovered Aug. 20 by workers removing asbestos from the radio station's offices on the fourth floor of Jesse Hall.
"It's an unplanned part of our renovations," Bailey said.
Jesse Hall Building Coordinator John Murray, who also inspected the mural Wednesday, said it's roughly 8 by 8 feet square.
According to university records, Hatfield was the student treasurer of the MU art department in 1935 and received a bachelor's degree in education in 1936. He earned a master's degree in art in 1941, the same year written on the mural.
However, there is no way to be entirely sure of the artist, given the age and obscurity of the work, said Alex Barker, the director of the Museum of Art and Archaeology.
Barker, who also examined the mural, believes the artist could have been a student.
"Whoever painted it clearly understood how to paint in (the Regionalist) style," he said.
Barer said the solid, muscled forms in the mural are characteristic of American Regionalism, which was most popular in the 1930s and often romanticizes small towns and rural areas.
There is also a slight distortion in the mural that resembles the view through a wide-angle lens, another feature of the style, Baker said.
In step with the school's journalism tradition, Hatfield painted an old-fashioned printing press in one corner of the work.
Jesse Hall was built in 1893 after a fire destroyed the original academic hall, leaving behind the columns that now anchor Francis Quadrangle. Barker said the distinctive brick and limestone administrative building has produced its share of surprise gems.
"A lot of treasures have turned up at Jesse Hall over the years - paintings, sculptural pieces - but I believe this is the first mural," Barker said.
Bailey said that until the early 1960s, the art department was located on the fourth floor of Jesse Hall, where the mural was found. In the past, the building has housed a gym for women's basketball, a TV production studio and an ROTC rifle range.
Behind the "Danger: Asbestos Area" sign at KBIA, tents of plastic sheeting and pegboard still hide the mural as asbestos removal continues. The mural is expected to be uncovered Thursday or Friday, said Rocky Rivers, who is working on the renovation.
Bailey said the mural appeared to be in fairly good condition, and he plans to keep it on display, overlooking the renovated workspace of the KBIA on-air staff.
Besides its surprise resurfacing, Barker finds the mural intriguing because the scene might reflect a real MU class from the 1940s.
"The artist could have worked here by natural light looking over his shoulder at his fellow students while he painted," Barker said.
But he can't ask Hatfield to verify his hypothesis. The artist died in 2005 in Alamosa, Colo., according to university records.
Little else is known about Hatfield's life. Other than being listed as art department treasurer, the only other mention of Hatfield in the Savitar, MU's yearbook, is on the 1935 Acacia Fraternity page. But Hatfield is not listed on the fraternity's official rolls, Acacia adviser Anthony Olson said, and university officials are still in the dark as to Hatfield's endeavors after leaving MU in 1941.