The Topeka Art Guild and the Topeka High School Art Collection and Gallery

In 1931 a new Topeka High School building opened, graced by gothic revival features, a stately bell tower, and the first art gallery in a Kansas school. Until the early 1970s the Topeka Art Guild (TAG) would manage the gallery and its programs and locate its office in the school.

The guild’s exhibitions and lectures drew huge crowds to the high school. From May 1934 to May 1935 alone, more than 20,000 individuals viewed installations that included work by the Prairie Print Makers and Chapman, Kansas, artist Henry Varnum Poor, as well as the National Exhibition of Contemporary Eastern Artists and 10th Annual Kansas Artists’ Exhibit. Hundreds of visitors to the high school that year also heard from internationally recognized Chicago sculptor Lorado Taft.


In addition to providing a home for the guild’s programs, before 1950 Topeka High School generated a coterie of prominent artists, some of whose art it collected. Works by several THS alumni—some of whom held shows at the Topeka Art Guild—appear in this exhibition. They are Aaron Douglas, Kenneth Miller Adams, Mary Huntoon, Marguerite Nellis, Margaret Whittemore, and Bradbury Thompson.

Topeka High School is one of the few schools in Kansas with extant mural art. In this panel created for the English room, a group of medieval figures, possibly pilgrims, ride through an English village in a scene that might evoke Shakespeare. The mural hangs above a fireplace in the classroom, which features Tudor-style woodwork and a gothic-arched stage.

Overmyer also painted a mural for the teacher’s lounge at the high school during the 1930s. He may be best known for a series of murals completed in the early 1950s depicting scenes from Kansas history in the Kansas State Capitol. He produced an earlier mural for the great room of Hale Library at K-State. 

David Hicks Overmyer
Born 1889, Topeka, Kansas
Died 1973, Topeka, Kansas

The Pageant of England, 1937
Oil on board

89 1/2 x 61 in. (frame)

Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project, Kansas

Topeka Public Schools, USD 501, Topeka High School

David Hicks Overmyer
Born 1889, Topeka, Kansas
Died 1973, Topeka, Kansas

Sketches for mural, title unknown (Mediterranean town and seascape), 1937
Oil on illustration board

Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project

Top: 5 3/8 x 21 3/8 in. 

Center: 5 3/8 x 10 7/8 in. 

Bottom: 5 3/8 x 22 7/8 in. 

Topeka Public Schools, USD 501, Topeka High School, and the Topeka High School Historical Society, gift of David C. Overmyer (THS ’47)

Overmyer’s New Deal mural for the staff lounge at Topeka High School, his alma mater, evokes the feeling of being in a Mediterranean coastal village. The artist was influenced by Art Deco, and his work often displays vivid color schemes and simplified, geometric imagery. 

Commissioned by the Topeka School Board in 1938, the mural covers almost 1,000 square feet on three adjacent walls. Overmyer painted the scene directly onto dry plaster.

In 1939 the artist walked off the teachers lounge mural job, leaving the work unfinished. This series of studies provide a sense of what the completed mural may have looked like. One story maintains that school board member Col. J.W.F. Hughes was unhappy with the quality of Overmyer’s work and complained to the artist. Another account points to a more personal explanation: Hughes and Overmyer’s father had been fierce political rivals in the late 1800s. 

Views of Overmyer mural for the teachers lounge at Topeka High School. Photographs by members of THS Digital Photography I class, Joshua Davis instructor; students Daishon Lutz, Ethan Martell, Kerstin Schmitt, Lauren Wadley, and Maddy Bernal

Aaron Douglas
Born 1899, Topeka, Kansas
Died 1979, Nashville, Tennessee

1917 yearbook cover, Topeka High School

Topeka Public Schools, USD 501, Topeka High School, and the Topeka High School Historical Society

Since 1915 the Topeka High School yearbook has been called The Sunflower. While most covers present a naturalistic image of the flower, Douglas’ 1917 design is stylized and brightly colored.  

Douglas attended a segregated elementary school in Topeka before graduating from the city’s integrated high school in 1917. He went on to become chair of the art department at Fisk University and one of the leading members of the Harlem Renaissance. With other figures from this movement, Douglas re-envisioned contemporary Black society and history. His imagery often blended African art forms and modern European styles. One of the artist’s most famous works is a four-part New Deal mural, Aspects of Negro Life, for the New York Public Library branch in Harlem. A re-creation of the panel From Slavery to Reconstruction can be found in a park in Topeka named in honor of the artist.  

Douglas’ THS yearbook sunflower motif shows the seeds of his skill as an illustrator, a talent he would apply to Black advocacy publications such as the NAACP’s The Crisis and the National Urban League’s Opportunity.

1917 Topeka High School yearbook, Topeka Public Schools, USD 501, Topeka High School, and the Topeka High School Historical Society

Aaron Douglas, From Slavery to Reconstruction, 1934, panel for mural Aspects of Negro Life, Public Works of Art Project, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Art and Artifacts Division, The New York Public Library (New York Public Library Digital Collections)

J. Bradbury Thompson
Born 1911, Topeka, Kansas
Died 1995, Greenwich, Connecticut

Page design, 1929 Topeka High School yearbook

Topeka Public Schools, USD 501, Topeka High School, and the Topeka High School Historical Society

The bright and bold Art Deco-influenced designs adorning the 1929 Topeka High School yearbook were created by Bradbury Thompson, an artist and designer who made significant contributions to the field of visual communication.  

Thompson’s innovative use of typography, color, and composition pushed the boundaries of traditional design. The artist gained recognition for his 1939 World’s Fair catalog design, his role as art director of Mademoiselle magazine, and his groundbreaking designs for the paper company Westvaco. As a faculty member at the Yale University School of Art for nearly four decades, he inspired generations of designers.  

Thompson’s artistic talents were evident early on as seen in his yearbook page design. He also left his mark on Washburn University, his other Topeka alma mater, designing its unique mascot, the Ichabod, in 1938, and creating the acclaimed Washburn College Bible in 1979. 

From Bradbury Thompson: The Art of Graphic Design, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988