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Early in his career Walter Henry “Jack” Beal, Jr. painted abstract expressionist canvases, because he believed it was “the only valid way to paint.” By the early 1960s he totally altered his approach and fully repudiated abstraction. Turning to representation, he painted narrative and figurative subjects, often enhanced by bright colors and dramatic perspectives.

Beal was born in Richmond, Virginia, and from 1950 to 1953 he attended the Norfolk Division of William and Mary College Polytechnic Institute, (now Old Dominion University) where he studied biology and anatomy. Shifting gears, he sought art training at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where he focused on drawing, and met his wife, artist Sondra Freckelton. His art history instructor encouraged her students to paint in the manner of established artists, and to that end he frequented the Institute’s galleries. For Beal this was significant: “Until I saw pictures of real quality I had tended to think of painting as just so much self-indulgent smearing around, but when I saw masterpieces by Cézanne and Matisse, and other painters of similar stature, I was bowled over; suddenly I realized the force of art.”

After spending three years (1953–1956) at the Art Institute, Beal concluded his studies there without getting a terminal degree, thinking it was only useful if he wanted to teach, which, at the time, he did not. He also took courses at the University of Chicago in 1955 and 1956. During this period he married Freckelton, a fellow student and sculptor who began her career working in wood and plastic. Together they moved to New York’s SoHo District before its transformation from a wasteland of sweatshops and small factories into an arts district. They were active with the Artist Tenants Association which was instrumental in getting zoning laws changed so that artists could live and work in the well-lit lofts.

Embracing what came to be called “New Realism,” Beal initially painted an occasional landscape as well as earthy-toned still lifes which consisted of jumbled collections filled with personal objects. His signature style started with a series of female nudes—all modeled by Freckelton—based on Greek mythology. These were large canvases with flat paint surfaces, dramatic foreshortening, and unusual perspectives. He further enlivened them with vivid colors, stark lighting, and dynamic patterns derived from textiles and overstuffed furniture. He stopped painting nudes after two episodes. The first came as he was loading a canvas of his naked wife onto a truck in lower Manhattan; several laborers walked by and started to fondle and kiss the painting. On the one hand he felt his wife had  been violated, while on the other he was pleased that his realism was so convincing. The second occurred after a solo exhibition in Chicago at which the reception had been sponsored by Playboy magazine. A few days later he was approached by a publicist and asked if Playboy bunnies could be photographed in front of his paintings. He refused.

Some portrait commissions came Beal’s way, but he preferred only portraying friends. More significant were four large murals on the History of Labor in America, the 20th Century: Technology (1975), which he undertook for the headquarters of the United States Department of Labor in Washington. Following a historical timeline, the themes were: colonization, settlement, nineteenth century industry, and twentieth century technology. The unveiling ceremony was attended by government officials and Joan Mondale, an arts advocate and wife of the vice-president. The reviewer for the Washington Post wrote enthusiastically: “They’re heartfelt and they’re big (each is 12 feet square). Their many costumed actors (the Indian, the trapper, the scientist, the hardhat, the capitalist in striped pants, the union maid, etc.) strike dramatic poses in dramatic settings (a seaside wood at dawn, an outdoor blacksmith’s forge, a 19th-century mill, a 20th-century lab). The lighting is theatrical. Beal’s compositions, with their swooping curves and bunched diagonals, are as complicated as his interwoven plots.” To accomplish the murals Beal assembled a team of assistants and models, much in the manner of Renaissance masters, which included artist friends and Freckelton. who by then was painting brightly colorful still lifes. 

A second mural commission ensued from New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority for two twenty-foot long installations for the Times Square Interborough Rapid Transit Company subway station. Beal’s designs for The Return of Spring (installed in 2001, three days after the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, DC and Philadelphia) and The Onset of Winter (installed in 2005), Beal captured the appearance of his models in an oil painting made to the scale of the intended mosaic. A collaboration with Miotto Mosaics, the canvases were shipped to the Travisanutto Workshop, in Spilimbergo, Italy, where craftsmen fabricated the design to glass mosaics. The Return of Spring depicted construction workers and other New Yorkers in front of a subway kiosk and an outdoor produce market and in The Onset of Winter, a crowd watches a film crew recording a woman entering the subway as snow falls against the city’s skyline. Harkening back to some of his early nudes based on Greek myth, Persephone, goddess of fertility and wife of Hades, appears in both. The symbolism is pertinent, since she spent six months each year below ground.

Although he disparaged teaching early on, Beal and Freckelton offered four summertime workshops on their farm in Oneonta, New York. He was an instructor at the New York Academy of Art, a graduate art school he helped to establish in 1982. Returning to Virginia, he taught at Hollins College, which in 1994 awarded him an honorary degree. A previous honorary degree was issued in 1992 from the Art Institute of Boston. In 1990 he was the Gian Carlo Menotti artist-in-residence at the Spoleto USA Festival in Charleston. He was also the founder of the Artists’ Choice Museum in New York, the recipient of numerous grants and awards, and a visiting lecturer at over 100 schools, universities and museums throughout the country.