John Rea, Artist - REDISCOVERED! (8-18-08)
Carole wrote, “…seeing your article in the Angola newspaper has my mom more excited than I have seen her in years. She has called the newspaper, Waterloo librarian, her brother, etc. She even made my dad take her down to Waterloo to see the murals -- she had thought that all of his murals were gone! She just left my house (she lives next door) from seeing the slideshow, and was so happy she cried.”
Carole went on to say her mother had expressed interest in having me contact her so Opal could tell me all about her Uncle John. I responded, “Wow. I never would have dreamed that John Rea had a local connection. I figured he was just another guy on the road -- there were so many of them during the Great Depression. Amazing...”
I thanked Carole for informing me of all this new John Rea information and resolved to make a trip back to my old environs in order to meet with Opal. Then in early April I received a letter from Opal; here are some excerpts:
“John Rea was the oldest of four boys born to Henry Brown Rea and his wife Blanche Trauber Rea on a farm outside of Licking, Missouri. I do not know my Uncle John’s birthday, but I know that my father, William Eugene Rea, was the second oldest, and he was born on November 1, 1900. John and William are buried in the Licking Cemetery, along with their parents.
“Uncle John never stayed long in any one place after leaving home. He was born with a hearing problem and was very nearly deaf. He went from town to town painting murals on the walls of taverns, movie theaters, and inside houses. We know that the paintings in other communities (Albion, Wolf Lake, Angola, etc.) have all been painted over or destroyed. I do not know if there are any photos of them…
“He did make some framed paintings. I have one as does my brother Bill; both are unsigned, though. John used his skills to paint his way for food and lodging all across the Midwest. The only times I actually saw and visited with him was when he came to Albion, Indiana, to see his brother (my dad) and family. John was not a drinker, but he did enjoy a good cigar.”
After reading Opal’s letter, I knew I had to follow through on my plan to meet with her in hopes of getting a better idea of who this once-elusive John Rea really was. I also arranged to meet with Maggie Smith, daughter of the late Waterloo, Indiana, tavern owner who -- luckily enough for succeeding generations like ours -- had the good sense seventy years ago to accept an offer from a traveling artist who wanted to paint murals on “Smitty’s” walls.
There is more to be written on this subject, but for now it can be absolutely ascertained that the artist John Rea was not only a great muralist, but he was also “one of ours” -- a fellow Midwesterner who should be forever remembered by those who can appreciate the value of artistry and history.
Native of DeKalb County, Indiana
Waterloo High School Class of 1965