Peering behind the pegboard panels in the KBIA/91.3 FM office, Program Director John Bailey believed he had found a Thomas Hart Benton.
Bailey said the mural, which depicts an art class with a semi-circle of students sketching a male model, had the same sculptural quality of the works of the famous Missouri-born Regionalist painter, but closer scrutiny found the artist to be a former MU student.
The mural was uncovered Tuesday at the radio station's offices on the fourth floor of Jesse Hall. Although workers discovered it on Aug. 20 while removing asbestos, ongoing renovations kept it behind pegboard and plastic tents for several days.
Rumors circulated about the artist's identity until a name was found in the lower right corner: James Hatfield, 1941.
Originally it was believed Hatfield was a former faculty member, but MU graduation records show the artist was most likely a student.
In the 1935 Savitar, MU's yearbook, Hatfield is listed as the student treasurer of the art department. He obtained a bachelor's degree in education in 1936 and a master's degree in art in 1941, the same year on the mural.
From the style of the work, it is not surprising that Bailey and others hoped it might be a Benton, said Alex Barker, director of the Museum of Art and Archaeology. Barker initially thought the artist was Regionalist painter Frederick Shane, an MU faculty member at the time.
The solid, muscled forms in the mural are characteristic of American Regionalism, a local style that was most popular in the 1930s and often presents a romanticized view of small towns and rural areas.
Barker said the "wide-angle lens" distortion is another feature of the style.
"Whoever painted it clearly understood how to paint in (the Regionalist) style," he said.
Barker could not determine the medium of the mural based on a limited view last week, but said he plans to take a closer look today, now that the work is fully uncovered.
Jesse Hall was built in 1893 after a fire destroyed the original Academic Hall, leaving behind only the columns that now anchor Francis Quadrangle. Barker said the distinctive brick and limestone administrative building has produced its share of surprises.
"A lot of treasures have turned up at Jesse Hall over the years - paintings and sculptural pieces - but I believe this is the first mural," he said.
Bailey added that up until the early 1960s, the art department was located on the fourth floor, 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. This varied history might explain why artifacts such as the mural turn up at Jesse Hall.
The mural was believed to be in fairly good condition, but the Tuesday unveiling revealed splotches of white paint. Also, a red mustache, apparently the work of some long-forgotten defacer, obscures one of the work's prominent characters.
"It might be someone's last act before they covered the mural with pegboard," Bailey said. "It's a little distressing, but we'll probably investigate some sort of clean up job."
Bailey said he plans to keep the work on display as an unplanned part of the renovations.
Besides its surprise resurfacing, Barker said finds the mural intriguing because the scene could reflect a real MU class from the 1940s.
"One thing I really like about the painting is that it might have been painted from life," Barker said. "The artist could have worked here by natural light (in what was then an art classroom), looking over his shoulder at his fellow students while he painted."
Unfortunately, Barker can't ask Hatfield to verify this hypothesis. Records show that the artist died in 2005 in Alamosa, Colo.
Little else is known about the artist's life. Other than being listed as art department treasurer, the only other mention of Hatfield in the Savitar is on the 1935 Acacia Fraternity page. Curiously, Hatfield is not listed on the fraternity's official rolls, Acacia chapter adviser Anthony Olson said.
University officials are still in the dark as to Hatfield's endeavors after leaving MU in 1941.