After spending nearly a decade in the PFC Clyde R. Houser Leighton Borough Annex, "Franz Kline Muler" is on the move. The life-size fiberglass mule will be on loan to the Allentown Art Museum until January in conjunction with an exhibit of Lehighton native Franz Kline's work.
"Muler" was created during the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor's "Miles of Mules" art program in 2003. More than 170 fanciful mules were created during the program, depicting scenes from towns along the Delaware and Lehigh corridor from Scranton to Bristol.
Lehighton's mule was designed as a tribute to Lehighton native and internationally-known artist Franz Kline, who grew up on Ninth Street and graduated from Lehighton High School in 1931. Since the Miles of Mules project ended, the mule has been housed in Kline's alma mater, the former high school now used as the borough annex.
"Since it's been at the borough annex for a number of years, we thought that bringing it back into the public eye would be a logical and emotional connection for the people of Lehighton, who for so long have thought of Kline as one of their own," said Chris Potash, the manager of public relations at the Allentown Art Museum. "Kline was important to the area, and he's very important to the art world as well. This exhibit is where the two kind of connect."
More than 50 original works by Kline will be exhibited in the Scheller gallery from Oct. 7 through Jan. 13 under the title "Franz Kline: Coal and Steel." During this time, Muler will be on display in the museum's educational gallery, Art Ways, an interactive gallery geared toward children and families.
"It's a good way to show art to kids. Some of Kline's paintings can be a bit intimidating, because of how abstract they are. The idea was to use the mule to make his work a bit more fun, and to bring it to life," said Potash.
The paintings on Muler depict two pieces of Kline's work, an abstract work (shown on the mule's legs) and the large Kline mural housed at the American Legion Post 314 in Lehighton.
Potash and museum president and CEO Brooks Joyner got their first up-close look at Muler late last week when they arrived to transport the mule. They came prepared with moving equipment and a good sense of humor; both would be required to move the life-size piece.
"He's beautiful," said Joyner, seeing Muler for the first time. "This is a big moment for us."
With the help of Lehighton borough council members, the men carefully moved the mule through the building and into an awaiting horse trailer.
Dale Freudenberger, a member of the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, who helped to coordinate the mule's presence at the museum and also donated railroad and mining artifacts for the exhibit, was glad to see the piece being used to connect an important artist back to the Lehighton area.
"It's been awhile since this was on public display," said Freudenberger. "It's going to be a great part of a very important art exhibit. This is something that should evoke pride in the community, that a local graduate from Lehighton High School, who was interested in art and had his work included in the Lehighton year book, became an internationally-known artist."
The "Miles of Mules" project was done in the early 2000s as a regional public art project to celebrate local history and art throughout the heritage corridor.
"We wanted something that would represent the five-county region," said Freudenberger. "Mules were used in the coal region and on local farms. They were also used on the canals. They were a good representative for the entire area."
Each town had a chance to purchase their mule after the project ended. Lehighton purchased Muler in 2003. Lehighton's mule was designed and painted by local artists Beth Franks, Eddie Jo Gaston, Cindy Mertz-Lufaw, Rebecca Finsel, Mary Collins and Terry Brown.
"Franz Kline: Coal and Steel" will be the first major Kline exhibit in the world in more than a decade, and the first exhibit in our area. Thanks to work by guest curator Dr. Robert Mattison, a professor of art history at Lafayette College, this exhibit will showcase pieces that have rarely or never been viewed by the public. Many of the 70-plus pieces on display are Kline's earlier works, which clearly show the influence of Kline's upbringing in Pennsylvania and his evolution into the most influential abstract artists of his time.
"There will be large works, such as Turin, a large black and white work on par with the pieces that are on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York," said Potash. By far the largest piece at the Allentown museum's Kline exhibit at nearly 8 feet wide, Turin is on loan from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri.
"These pieces are going to be here, in our area. It will give people from Lehighton a chance to stay relatively close to home and to see the influence that our area had on his work."
"Franz Kline: Coal and Steel" and the related exhibit in Art Ways will be on display from Oct. 7 through Jan. 13, 2013. Galleries are open Wednesday through Sunday. General admission is free on Sundays.
The Allentown Art Museum is located at 31 North Fifth St. in Allentown.