For more than 60 years, local artist Leo Laskaris’ three murals depicting life in Newark have been prominently displayed, first in a Main Street bank and later in city hall.
That could soon change, however, if city council goes through with a plan to remove the paintings as part of a project officials say will improve the aesthetics of council chambers.
Jeff Martindale, assistant to the city manager, said the colorful paintings that hang behind the dais where council members sit are distracting and cause visibility issues on the city’s online video stream from council meetings. In recent years, council members and other officials have criticized the murals as outdated, stuck in time and even terrifying.
“It’s time for the pictures to go, but I do agree they should find a home,” Councilman Jason Lawhorn said last week. “They have received some ridicule. To people who are here often, it’s sort of a memorable mark that should probably be somewhere where years from now we can laugh about the old council chambers.”
Born in 1917, Laskaris, whose family owned the Deluxe Luncheonette on Main Street, studied agriculture at the University of Delaware but fell in love with art after taking an elective class at the university. After serving as a sharpshooter in World War II, he used his G.I. Bill benefits to study art in New York City. He then returned to Newark and ran an art school here for several years.
Laskaris designed the city of Newark’s seal, facilitated the creation of a Newark-themed quilt that now hangs in the Newark Senior Center and created a mosaic that is displayed in UD’s Willard Hall Education Building.
“My dad never became a famous artist, but he was well-known in the region,” his daughter, Julie Laskaris, recalled in an interview last week. “My father, in his quiet, shy way, was very much a part of the Newark community.”
In 1954, he was commissioned by Newark Trust Company to create the murals, which he collectively titled “The Little World.”
“My Dad was wanting to explore the three elements of life in Newark,” Julie Laskaris said. “He was trying to capture every aspect of civic life.”
Each mural captures a different theme – Newark: A Cityscape, Newark and God, and Newark and Energy – and the borders contain small images of dozens of Main Street buildings.
“These three paintings are a picture of life in the city of Newark, Delaware, but they are more than that,” UD art professor Frank H. Sommer wrote when the murals were unveiled in June 1955. “They are the story of life in every American town in the second half of the twentieth century. In these paintings, Newark becomes a symbol of the whole of the United States.”
The murals were different than many of Laskaris’ other works, but elements of his early style are present, Julie Laskaris said.
“I don’t think he’d say it was his best work, but he was proud of it,” she said. “I think he was very proud that it was public-facing.”
In 1976, Farmer’s Bank, which had purchased the Newark Trust Company, donated the murals to the city and they have been displayed in council chambers ever since.
The paintings first came under fire in 2016 when then-mayor Polly Sierer and then-councilman Luke Chapman criticized them. Sierer complained that a skeletal figure in the painting was visible behind her in photos, and Chapman compared one of the figures in the painting to “a little alien.”
“I know it feels silly, but this one terrifies me,” Chapman said, referring to one of the murals. “I don’t know what this means, but it’s in the background of photos and it’s embarrassing that to anyone in the world, this is what we represent.”
Council discussed the murals again last week as part of a broader discussion on updating council chambers.
Mayor Jerry Clifton said the murals need to go in order to improve the quality of the livestreams.
“People in the public have a reasonable expectation of having clarity of their elected officials,” Clifton said, though he acknowledged the paintings need to be preserved somewhere else. “They’re, if not historic, at least nostalgic to the community.”
Councilwoman Jen Wallace said she’s heard complaints about the paintings.
“I know they’re often a target of ridicule, but I don’t think they should be,” Wallace said. “While they definitely are somewhat stuck in time, I remember these from my childhood.”
Meanwhile, resident Jean White, a longtime fixture at council meetings, defended the paintings.
“Some people did not understand the symbolism of all these pictures, which are really quite beautiful,” White said. “I’ve spent a lot of time coming to meetings all through the years. It’s always been a welcoming and lovely and beautiful place, and it saddens me to suddenly realize what you’re talking about.”
Martindale said the plan is to remove the murals and replace them with a plainer backdrop. Their fate hasn’t been determined, but he said they could be moved elsewhere in city hall or donated to a historical society. In 2016, council suggested auctioning them off, but it’s unclear if that is still an option.
Council members were in general agreement that the murals should be removed, but they ultimately delayed the project over concerns about the $25,000 cost of the other proposed renovations, which includes replacing audience chairs and building a staircase between the council and staff seating areas in order to give the public a second exit in case of an emergency. It will reconsider the plan once staff develops an itemized cost list.
Julie Laskaris said she was disheartened to learn her late father’s murals could be taken down.
“I’m a bit disappointed,” she said. “I’d hope they can find another public venue for them. I think they provide a very meaningful look at what community life is about.”
If the murals can’t be relocated in city hall, she suggested they be offered to a local school as a nod to her father’s passion for education. He spent two decades working as an art teacher at Stanton Elementary School, where he filled the school with art, including murals on the wall and a 6-foot-tall papier-mâché tyrannosaurus rex.
“He was brilliant with children,” she said.