Arizona Contractor & Community
Arizona Captured his Heart: The Arizona Capitol Murals of Jay Datus
Few visitors to the Arizona State Capitol Museum venture to the former home of the State Library on the third floor of the 1938 addition. Yet, in the dome high above the information desk is the greatest non-book treasure of that library: The Pageant of Arizona Progress. This eight-panel mural by Jay Datus (1914-1974) depicts the personality and character of the unnamed Native Americans, Spanish explorers, pioneers, miners, farmers, and others who provided the foundation of the territory and, eventually, the state of Arizona.
I discovered the murals more than 20 years ago as a guide in the museum and wondered about the artist. Unfortunately, the Arizona Capitol Museum only had a brief biography on Datus. Thus, I made it a mission to learn more about the artist. Fortunately, the State Library had a wealth of letters and communication between the artist and the State Librarian, Mulford Winsor, regarding the murals.
Other information sources were newspaper articles and eBay. A chance conversation with another guide led to a brief interview with the artist’s daughter, Cynthia Combs. I later reached out to several of Datus’ former students. Eventually, the artist’s story came together from these fragments.
Datus was born in Jackson, Michigan, as Jesse Datus Smith, Jr. The family moved to Chicago for a short time and later relocated to Worcester, Massachusetts, his mother's childhood home. Datus discovered a passion for art at an early age. While in Worcester, he studied at the Museum School of Fine Arts and later at the Yale School of Fine Arts. During this time, Jesse Jr. changed his name to Jay Datus. The 1930 census records list him as J. Datus, so Jay Datus was likely a natural progression.
Moving back to Chicago in the mid-1930s, Datus opened his first studio. He did murals for private homes and some portraits and participated in two Art Institute of Chicago exhibits.
At age 23, Datus was awarded the mural commission in the new library addition of the Arizona State Capitol under the auspices of the Public Works Administration (PWA), a New Deal program intended to create work for artists. Datus and his wife, Martha Berry, also an artist, then moved from Illinois to Arizona, where they remained for most of the two years it took him to complete the project.
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This article originally appeared in the bimonthly Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, Jan/Feb 2023 issue, Vol. 12, No. 1.