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The Indiana Memorial Union: An Unlikely Art Gallery

If you think you've seen all the art galleries in Bloomington, you might still be missing one: The Indiana Memorial Union. We decided to take a closer look at the artwork we may have been ignoring.

The Indiana Memorial Union on the Indiana University campus sees about 13,000 people on any given day. Members of the IU community come to the building to eat or to study, to get a haircut or to play a mean round of pinball.

When one shuffles around the hallways of the Union – commonly referred to as the IMU – it may be easy to go about his everyday business completely unaware of some of its most precious assets: its art.

A Little More Than Stardust

Betsy Stirratt is the Director of the SoFA Gallery at IU's School of Fine Arts. She agreed to take a walk around the IMU and talk about what she found. "I hadn't actually gone from start to finish and looked at everything," Stirratt admits.

The painting that made the greatest impression on her, she said, was by Hoagy Carmichael.

Carmichael was a Bloomington native, IU alumnus and composer of some of the most popular songs of the twentieth century, including "Heart and Soul" and "Georgia on my Mind." He was also an amateur painter. One of his paintings is tucked away on the second floor of the IMU, just across from the Federal Room.

"It's a depiction of Constitution Elm in Corydon, Indiana," she says. "Corydon used to be the state capital. They had this enormous elm tree and underneath the elm tree is where they drafted the first constitution for the state. Hoagy Carmichael went and painted a painting of this site. And in this painting, you can see that the Constitution Elm was already dead – it died of Dutch elm's disease in the Twenties."

A Hometown Connection

Stirratt said she had a wonderful time going through the IMU. Although she's been at the university for 30 years, she says this was the first time she's gone through the building as an art gallery.

"There's a beautiful little painting called Strawberry Moon, right by the store Sugar and Spice, where they sell coffee and all that. It's just this little primitivist painting. It is really luminous and it always catches my eye when I walk by. That is one of my favorite paintings."

Rand McKamey is the painter of Strawberry Moon. As chance would have it, he's also the art preparator of the IMU. "I actually worked on it for a very long time," McKamey says of the painting. "There's probably over 100 coats of paint in the sky. I worked on it for over a year before I got it just right."

A Piece Of Art At Every Turn

McKamey gives me a tour of the IMU's art collection. He shows off work by artists affiliated with the Bloomington community, like landscape painter T.C. Steele. As we walk by the cafeteria, a large, blue, abstract painting catches the eye.

"You must be a vain person," McKamey suddenly says, as I linger by the painting for a beat.

I ask why, and he delivers the punchline: "This is Harry Engel's painting, 'The Vane.'"

A former IU professor, Engel's works hang in some of the most respected museums in the world. McKamey takes a moment to analyze the piece. "It almost looks like [the weather vane rooster] is up there. But you know, he's a lot more real than anything else that he's sitting on. The object of imagination has more solidity, more realism than the actual real parts of the picture."

Art In Three Dimensions

While the work of contemporary painters like Rand McKamey and Harry Engel ornaments the walls of the IMU, other types of art are also represented in the Union's collection. You can find sculptures, antique furniture, centuries-old stained glass and classic paintings.

Stirratt says that people don't go to the IMU nearly enough just to look at the art – herself included.

"I take it for granted a little bit too much," she confesses. "I go to the union to get a cup of coffee or have a meeting or something. Unfortunately, I don't think probably a lot of the students even look at the art. It's a very exciting little afternoon treat to just go over and look at everything."

So, does she recommend it?

"Go through it from start to finish and see what's there. It's just so surprising."

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