Artist John J. Dunn was exhibiting some of his ceramic tiles at a furniture show in South Bend in the early 1960s when someone showed him a big roll of architectural plans for McKenna Hall at the University of Notre Dame.
On a specification sheet, Dunn noticed the name of a company in Pennsylvania that once fired him after four months’ work. He decided to compete against them for the mural-making job in the building.
Within two weeks, he built a scale model of a mural for the wall along the open staircase in the building, drawing each of the 2,000 foot-square tiles at a scale of one-half inch to one foot. Dunn won the contract.
“It took a whole year of very, very hard labor,” he recalls. “I did it single-handedly. It was a monumental, massive job. They [the tiles] could weigh up to 12 pounds. It was 16-hour days and sometimes 18-hour days. I also built a 200-cubic-foot kiln to fire tile. I had to build that before I made any tile.”
The tiles are composed of several clays mixed with other materials and fired in the specially made kiln. One tile in the geometric set, in the middle of a main panel, includes the Pythagorean Theorem (in a right-angled triangle, the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides lending the name “Homage to Pythagoras” to the installation.
A plaque with the work’s name and the artist’s name was recently installed on the 60- by 30-foot mural, which was completed in 1966 and restored as part of a McKenna Hall overhaul in 2010.
Dunn, who was born in 1926 in Liverpool, England, came to South Bend to teach at Saint Mary’s College in 1961, after he answered an ad in Craft Horizons magazine.
Dunn was living in a Buckminster Fuller-style geodesic dome and working in a farmer’s large barn in Jones, Mich., when he won the mural job.
He later quit his teaching job in protest after Sister Mary Renate, C.S.C., Saint Mary’s president, banned his nude sketches from an exhibition at the college. She had ordered the drawing removed after receiving a complaint from an administrative assistant, who found the works “vulgar and suggestive.”
He moved to Minneapolis to teach in the late 1960s, then to Kansas City and Wisconsin before he settled in Boulder, Colo., where he made murals, pots and sculptures. He moved to California in the late 1970s, where he still works, most recently on a series of hexagonal lanterns.
“Homage to Pythagoras” is still his favorite work. “I made sculptures and murals and things like that,” Dunn says, “but that was the biggest and best.”