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.
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.
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.
They remember Hardrick’s nephew from school and playing with his son in a yard with shrubbery and flowers. To them, Hardrick himself was more neighbor than famous painter in a community where plays and concerts were integrated into church gatherings.
“If you were not biologically kin, you are kin out here,” said Alesha Holder, a Norwood resident and Phillips’ granddaughter. “This neighborhood is close.”
With its history in mind, residents fought against the city of Indianapolis’ recent plans to build a morgue and forensics facilities. The expansion — in the area west of Vandeman Street and south of Prospect Street — would have been on what was the Hardrick family’s land. In March, the city said it canceled its plans and would help the neighborhood receive a state or federal historic designation.
Now, neighbors are asking for amenities they’ve lost over the years — like the grocery stores, drugstore and laundromat — and to celebrate their culture. Austin calls it the beginning of a revival from the ground up.
And Hardrick’s story is central.
The portrait artist who’d stop people from his taxi
John William Buckner II met his ancestors through his great-grandfather’s portraits. He studied them in his grandmother’s home near Butler University, where the family met around glass-topped, brass-legged cocktail tables to play gin rummy and tell stories. He noticed the way each drop of paint felt coaxed into conveying the subjects’ personalities.
“When you looked at their faces in these paintings, their eyes, it was almost like they were trying to communicate with you,” said Buckner, who was born after his great-grandfather died.
Others saw the same. Among Hardrick’s paintings of well-known people were Ferdinand Schaefer, the first conductor of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra; Crispus Attucks president Matthias Nolcox; Robert I. Todd, president of the Indianapolis Street Railway Co.; and vocalist Maxine Sullivan.
Before all of that, when Hardrick was a student at Harriet Beecher Stowe School, he impressed his teacher. It was likely educator and community activist Ada Harris, Austin said, who connected him to more opportunities that grew his reputation quickly. He attended Emmerich Manual Training High School and the John Herron School of Art, studying with famous Hoosier Group artists William Forsyth and Otto Stark.
Hardrick’s style of Impressionism emerged as he matured. He took mental pictures of scenes while visiting Brown County and then, later on, mixed them with his imagination into paintings.
He applied paint thickly to his canvas or board and then shaped it with a palette knife and his thumb — a process Hardrick patiently explained to anyone who asked. Every so often, he’d step back to take a broader view, gripping a spindled wooden rocker and leaving his painted thumbprints on the back.
The artist and his Indianapolis contemporaries illustrated the city through the lens of Black life. They became part of a wave of creators, formed in the wake of Black soldiers’ World War I heroism and families’ mass migration north, who collectively began to define their lives and talent on their own terms. History calls this emergence the “Harlem Renaissance,” though artists sowed it across the country.
“Little Brown Girl” was one such work. In it, a child with a wise stare sits surrounded by red flowers that feel like they’re dangling almost three-dimensionally. The work was part of a group that won Hardrick the second-place medal in the competitive 1927 Harmon Awards that supported Black achievements in a variety of fields.
The Black community thought so much of it that a group raised money to buy and donate it in 1929 to the Art Association of Indianapolis and John Herron Art Institute. In 1942, the museum — now the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields — noted it was missing from inventory, and it remained lost until 1993, when the museum negotiated the return with a New York art dealer who’d obtained it.
At that time, a search of outgoing files indicated that “Little Brown Girl” might have been lost after its loan around 1940 to a Wawasee hotel that closed a few years later. Curators Harriet Warkel and William Taylor researched the incident as part of Hardrick’s story for the 1996 museum exhibit catalog and related articles.
But for all of his famous paintings, more could be in Indianapolis family collections because Hardrick took so many commissions. When he drove a taxi, he’d stop people and ask if they’d like to be painted. Sometimes he’d stand on a corner and capture the same scene over and over as the light changed. Then he’d load the wet artworks into his car to sell.
“Here’s a man who has to work to make money,” Warkel said, “and his love of art was so passionate.”
The work ethic that won him a $500 roadster
The Hardrick family’s journey to the outskirts of Indianapolis began because of a violent threat, according to family history. The Ku Klux Klan showed up at their Kentucky home and vowed to burn it down if they didn’t leave within 24 hours. So the artist’s grandfather and his family packed what they could and headed north.
Later, their address would be 3309 Prospect St. The family also changed its name from Hareluck, possibly to evade recognition after the escape, said Siobhan Guy, whose grandmother was John’s sister Georgia Hardrick Stewart.
They likely turned their Indiana land into a farm. John’s paternal grandfather learned to grow crops while enslaved, and John’s mother would have known the trade, too, given her own father’s work as a gardener after he became free.
The family’s entrepreneurial streak blossomed into prominent Indianapolis businesses. John’s father, Shepherd Hardrick Sr., founded Hardrick Hauling Co. at the turn of the 20th century by transporting whatever people and businesses needed to move. Starting in 1934, Stewart’s Ver-I-Best Coal company supplied homes and industrial users, and a grandson started the distributor Mid-City Salt Service in 1959.
John Hardrick worked at Hardrick Hauling Co. At age 22, he married Georgia Howard, and supporting their five children meant that he needed steady paychecks. Unlike some of his peers, Hardrick wasn’t able to study in Europe, according to the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s 1996 exhibit catalog, “A Shared Heritage: Art by Four African Americans.”
Instead, he worked at the Indianapolis Stove Foundry and founded a carpet-cleaning company, among other jobs. As a carrier for the Indianapolis Star, he won a $500 Monroe roadster in 1915 by adding 251 new subscribers during a contest. Hair care entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker, whom he painted, helped him sell the automotive so he could put the money toward his education, the Indianapolis Recorder noted.
Sometimes, his jobs converged — like on a July day in 1933, when the Star chronicled how he sped away from his exhibit opening to organize a distribution of coal and then finish a portrait commission.
The juggling could have rankled Hardrick, filling him with the desire to cleave the toil from his identity as an artist. If it did, his actions spoke otherwise. Alongside his portraits of ladies in fine dresses, insightful elderly women and youthful innocence, he showed the physically laborious side of Black life.
The mural that disappeared
On Dec. 18, 1933, John Hardrick breathed in the cold, clear air as he hustled to be first in line at the John Herron Art Institute for a high-profile job.
Early that morning, in the midst of headlines about a John Dillinger gang escape and pleas for donations to fill empty Christmas stockings, the Star had announced the federal government would pay 20 Indiana artists for the Public Works of Art Project. At 9 a.m., a committee would take applications to create high-quality art in public buildings.
Hardrick had experience in just such work. Almost six years before, he had painted a mural of “Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well,” which still hangs at Allen Chapel A.M.E. Church at 11th and Broadway streets. In it, Jesus’ soft, knowing gaze meets the woman’s — an effect the artist achieved without preliminary sketches or models, the Star’s art critic noted at the time.
The committee’s decision to choose him must have been obvious. But details of the next events are opaque.
Hardrick’s daughter, Rowena Tucker, said he painted muscled laborers sweating in forge so fiery the viewer could practically feel the heat, according to the 1996 exhibit catalog. She said school officials didn’t understand that Hardrick was promoting the importance of education.
“The principal didn’t approve of that kind of painting. He wanted doctors and lawyers and professions like that,” the catalog quoted her as saying. “So they (the murals) disappeared down into the basement and were never found.”
Exactly which version of the mural Tucker saw remains unclear. Reports from the Indianapolis Recorder, Star, News and Times are intermittent. By Dec. 30, 1933, the selected artists had submitted sketches of their projects to be approved. In May 1934, newspaper articles reference Hardrick’s work on a group of four murals that were commissioned by the federal government for Crispus Attucks.
Crispus Attucks Museum curator Robert Chester said he did not know of any form of “Workers” that is currently at Crispus Attucks. Neither do federal government entities contacted by the Star, including the Library of Congress, General Services Administration, and National Archives and Records Administration.
In “Polite Protest: The Political Economy of Race in Indianapolis 1920-1970,” Richard Pierce noted that then-Principal Russell Lane accepted the work of art but did not install it because he wanted students to aspire to more than manual labor.
Black workers were kept out of leadership jobs, Pierce wrote, and they fought for more opportunities while trying not to lose steps forward they’d gained. In “Workers,” Hardrick painted the reality of many, but Lane wanted them to pursue another future.
Norwood historian and artist Austin saw Hardrick’s personal experience woven throughout the description of the laborers, their sweat, the heat. The rejection must have stung, she thought. But, repainted, his message could resonate once again.
The name that should be remembered
Arthur Tucker and Stephen Buckner remember their grandfather loved vanilla wafers and steak and watching “All My Children.” Hardrick delighted in being a jokester, the kind who tickled Tucker’s face with a blanket to wake him up.
When they were in public, their grandfather was famous enough that people would stop him to talk. Once, on a walk, the artist fell, and a stunned young Tucker saw a man come out of nowhere to pick him up and drive them home. Toward the end of Hardrick’s life, Parkinson’s disease slowly stole his remarkable abilities, but it couldn’t blot out his decades of work that already meant so much to the community.
The artist’s legacy has been on the minds of his grandchildren, who are now the family’s elders. Over the past few years, they’ve been meeting to figure out how to catalog and show more of Hardrick’s paintings, develop a website and educate more people about him.
Separately, Norwood residents have been working to grow their own cultural options. First among their desires is moving out of their currently cramped community center into a larger building so kids and senior residents can enjoy more activities, said Brenda McAtee, president of the Norwood Neighborhood Association. An art center would likely be separate — a place with room to be creative and messy, with studios and areas to display artwork, artist Austin said. However it unfolds, neighbors want ownership over these entities and a potential history museum.
“So many kids, they just grow up and move away. They don’t know what’s doing in this community,” McAtee said. “But to know this is the community you have lived in, I think that would make a lot of difference in a lot of kids’ lives.”
While the Hardrick family no longer resides in the neighborhood, its members support the idea of memorializing the artist’s work and lost mural in an art center.
As for “Workers,” Austin is continuing to search for the original plans. But even if she doesn’t find them, she said the mural’s message and Hardrick’s body of work provide enough clues to reimagine it.
“What he was saying (in the mural) was important,” Austin said, “it’s just we weren’t ready to hear it.”
If the mural finds a home in its creator’s ancestral Freetown, it could forge a legacy that entwines his family, his art and his labor — just the way he lived his life.