Hal Empie, 1954
The mural “Greenlee” was painted by renowned Arizona artist, Hal Empie (1909-2002). Hal was Duncan’s local pharmacist, cartoonist and artist. “Greenlee” was commissioned by the Duncan Board of Trustees in 1953. Painted in oil on one single piece of imported linen from Belgium, it was hand stretched by Hal on homemade one by four wooden stretcher bars. The mural took over one year to complete, approximately 580, and 50 pounds of paint. It is over 5 feet tall and 27 feet long. There are over 40 life-size figures. Several valley residents posed for Mr. Empie as models. Historically, “Greenlee” shows the Spanish Conquistadors, followed by the pioneers and the Apache Indians, through to the modem times of the 1950s. Local landmarks are shown, such as Ash Peak, Vanderbilt, Mount Royal, Steeple Rock, Gila River and town of Plantsite, as well as the Morenci open pit copper mine and smelter.
Over 250 attended the unveiling, important names of the 1950s from all over the Southwest. A critic on the scene speculated that the mural was the “largest canvas oil painting in the country.” (Arizona Republic, April 1954.)
Among Ann’s many duties as daughter, employee in the family business and traveling companion, she also served as ad hoc model in residence. She was not the first to do so, since Hal had been sketching his children and their various exploits all of their lives, most often for their own private amusement. In the mid- 50’ s, he received an offer to do a mural for the Duncan High School Cafeteria. Ann grants insight:
I remember the year he painted the mural, sometime in the ’50s. It is the mural that hangs in the Duncan cafeteria. It is about 27 feet long and 6 to 8 feet tall. Anyway,
I was around during this whole production. The studio was filled with live quail, chickens, dogs and had different people coming in for models. Everything was painted to life. My friend Gerald Richins and I are the children in the far right-hand comer of the mural, since we posed for my father. I remember my dad used a vacant building across the street from our home to build the stretcher bars all by hand—hand stretch the line, prime the linen with rabbit skin glue and then put on a layer of white lead paint all before he could begin his drawings. All the figures are life size. A creative idea was driven by this vision. The feat was absolutely unbelievable.
Hal essentially used the surface visually reenact the evolution of Greenlee County from Coronado forward. The colors he used, the characters he selected as models and the scenes he chose to highlight left his family and the local townspeople in general speechless with admiration. The $600 commission came from the Duncan Board of Trustees, after Hal’s instruction by Frederic Taubes, which instilled in him a new sense of confidence and a stronger level of technical awareness toward minutia. When the final effort was officially unveiled on a warm Saturday evening in April 1954, an estimated 250 citizens from Duncan and the surrounding countryside were treated to an aesthetic spectacle heretofore without precedent. A local journalist noted both the historic and artistic implications of the Belgian canvas simply titled “Greenlee.”
The successful painting of the mural was a triumph for artist Empie and is acclaimed by critics as one of the greatest masterpieces ever painted in the Southwest.
(This is an exerpt from Hal Empie’ s Book, “Arizona Hal Empie” by Evelyn S. Cooper. Pages 155-157, Copyright 2001)