John Hardrick’s lost mural and legacy in an Indianapolis Freetown

John Wesley Hardrick found fame across the nation by painting Indiana. His sensitive portraits of Indianapolis residents and Brown County’s natural beauty fit inside frames but feel like sculptures, with ridges and scallops that reach out and pull viewers closer. 

His most famous works fittingly reside in prominent museums and private collections. But some of his pieces have vanished, building up a legacy defined by what has been found — and what hasn’t.

The return of his award-winning portrait “Little Brown Girl” was widely heralded in 1994 after a half-century away. Flying under the radar for even longer has been a Depression-era mural planned for Crispus Attucks High School. “Workers” was magnificent, by Hardrick’s daughter’s account, capturing his own experience with hard labor in the Black community. But that’s likely why it wasn’t allowed on the wall.

A self-portrait painted by world-renowned painter John Wesley Hardrick, from the Norwood neighborhood of Indianapolis. The painting was photographed on Saturday, June 4, 2022, in Indianapolis.

These are the pieces of his legacy that admirers and family are now compiling to give him his due. His descendants want to publicly honor the soft-spoken man they often lovingly called “Dad Hardrick,” who died at age 77 in 1968, in enough time for the last living generation who knew him to organize their memories.

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And a group of neighborhood organizers wants to build an art center that celebrates Hardrick’s legacy — part of a cultural expansion in Norwood that includes a larger community center and a museum that honors its history.

Norwood neighbors want to revive the Crispus Attucks mural, too, by painting it at the art center. Considering its longtime absence, that will take imagination. But the backstory and creator’s life offer clues.

The Freetown revival that’s building

John Hardrick was only 6 years old when he made his talent impossible to ignore.

The painter, who was born in 1891, remained at the forefront of the Indianapolis art scene as long as he was physically able. He showed at the well-known Pettis gallery inside the Washington Street dry goods store and the Senate Avenue YMCA. He racked up prizes at the Indiana State Fair, exhibited on both coasts and cemented himself as a go-to portrait artist. 

But today, Hardrick’s legacy isn’t necessarily connected to Norwood — the neighborhood that his family simply called Prospect. 

Enter historian and artist Kaila Austin who, as part of a 2021 commission, asked longtime residents about their lives and then layered their personalities into painted portraits. Several were still residing in the same area that their ancestors carved out of the woods into a Freetown after the Civil War. At no point in her three decades of living in and around Indianapolis had Austin caught any inkling of that history.

Siobhan Guy, the granddaughter of Georgia Hardrick Stewart, who was the younger sister of painter John Wesley Hardrick, holds a photo of the famous artist as a baby.

So she continued interviews, asking longtime local journalist Laura McPhee to help with research. They found how the town was settled by survivors of the 28th Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops in the Civil War and Black people who left Kentucky. 

John Hardrick’s family was among the latter. The name didn’t awaken recognition in younger Norwood residents. But it did for Flinora M. Frazier, whose grandfather founded the town’s first church in 1889, and for Hobart Phillips, who has lived in his family home for 95 years.

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