Artist Maurice Schmidt and son Joshua take a picture in front of the mural after partial plaster removal.
Maurice Schmidt, the 77-year-old painter of the "lost" mural, quickly adjusted a yarmulke atop his head one recent summer day as he stepped through the front doors of what had once been Agudas Achim's synagogue.
In 1995 it had become the St. Paul Community Center
, now newly renovated and rechristened their House of Mercy event facility.
Schmidt, retired as head of the art department at Texas A&M-Kingsville and highly regarded as an artist and art teacher, author and critic, was there to see the painting he had not laid eyes on since the day he finished it more than half a century before.
Born and raised in New Braunfels and grandson of Jewish Hungarian immigrants, Schmidt
would travel with his
family to San Antonio's Agudas Achim synagogue
(then at Main and Quincy) for the High Holy Days.
The synagogue relocated to Donaldson Avenue in 1954 and it was here that Cantor Emmanuel Barkan made his
mural request of the young artist.
took a personal interest in my artwork," remembers Schmidt
Cantor Barkan had previously asked him to design linoleum-cut bookplates for the synagogue, but asking for a figurative painting in a Conservative synagogue is, even today, somewhat out of the ordinary, Schmidt
In fact, Schmidt, who is of strong religious temperament, had himself originally wrestled with why he felt called to be an artist when his religion frowned on figurative images in synagogues.
At UT, figurative sculptor Charles Umlauf was one of his favorite teachers and Schmidt spent a summer learning hands-on mural painting in San Miguel de Allende - the only strong figurative movement at a time when modernism ("mute art" Schmidt calls it) was dominating the art world.
was drawn to the figurative Christian art tradition - paintings by the Old Masters and the art found in Catholic churches.
Following graduation he spent a year in Boston at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, learning new things from European teachers.
Several years later, he
would earn his
MFA from the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, which finally eased his
father's mind concerning his
son's career choice, seeing "this really classy school" where "sort of misfit kids could get the means to make a living.
(The quote is from Schmidt's
2006 book, Maurice Schmidt
: A Life in Art, an excellent book not only for art-lovers and aspiring artists, but parents of children with art aspirations who fear their offspring are doomed to a life of poverty.)
From Cranbrook, Schmidt went on to become a beloved art professor at Texas A&I University (which became Texas A&M University-Kingsville), but from 1958 to 1963, he pursued an art career in San Antonio.
It was a move significant in his
development as an artist.
"I really kind of fell in love with the city," he
was sort of a model for me of a human being, like a second mother," recalls Schmidt
Their many long conversations touched on both religion and art.
To gain more experience in murals, young Schmidt
was happy to do three for the Oblates of Mary Immaculate through Father Peter Rogers, OMI, depicting Oblate ministries.
painted another mural after these, however - on the wall of Cantor Barkan's Agudas Achim study.
Many memories welled up as Schmidt
gazed at his
long ago artwork.
had been keenly aware of the ongoing Civil Rights struggle when he
painted a black man saving the castaway prophet in 1961. (Growing up in New Braunfels, his
grandfather's store had a drinking fountain open to all races at a time when separate drinking fountains were the rule.)
also recalled worrying where to find a model for Jeremiah's Ethiopian rescuer, Ebed-melech, when in walked the synagogue's janitor, a black man with powerful features but a kindly face.
"That's Ebed-melech," Schmidt
The janitor became his
Jeremiah's face was drawn in part from sketches of Cantor Barkan.
There was much rejoicing at the painting's resurrection by all involved.
Framed pictures of the mural's rescue hung on the wall next to it and Schmidt
was presented with photos as well, presenting books on his
life and art in return.
happily autographed the wall again, this time with the date of the mural's rebirth.
"I'm glad it's doing what it's doing," he
remarked to the Catholics and Jews joined together around him.
"Art is a living thing," reflected Schmidt