On Sunday, Millikin Art Department representatives and Shelbyville Root enthusiasts were on hand to collect many of the artist’s paintings from local collectors and public buildings. Probably Root’s most famous painting depicting the Lincoln-Thornton debate was taken down from its location in the Shelby County Courthouse to be transported to the Kirkland Fine Arts Center at Millikin and cleaned for the upcoming Root exhibit on March 10-31, entitled “Something More Than Praise.”

On hand for the historic removal of the painting were Shelby County Judge Michael Kiley; Root enthusiast and Shelby County history buff, Ed Boedecker; Prof. Edwin Walker, Millikin University Art Department Chairman and Director of the Kirkland Fine Arts Center; Jeff Lilly, Root historian, collector; and project co-author, and Nathan Halteman, Millikin Art student.

The big oil painting presented some big problems. The original frame used by Root had been nailed to a secondary frame of very heavy hardwood of perhaps 200 pounds, then nailed to the wall and hung by chains. After a group assessment of the situation, Walker carefully directed the removal. Thirty nerve-wracking minutes later, the original was free and ready to be secured in bubble wrap. It was then carried to the van and placed into its custom wood carrying case to be personally hand-cleaned by Walker later in his studio at Millikin.

Lilly, who now resides in Indiana, grew up around the famous painting. “I used to come to this courthouse all the time when I was about 12 or 13. My cousin, Rolland Tipsword from Taylorville, was a circuit judge at the time,” said Lilly. “I used to ride my bicycle down there and visit him when he was in court,” recalled Lilly. Looking at the painting, Lilly rubbed a finger around the edge. “This is really dirty, but what would you expect? People used to smoke in here years ago. That, and the dust have made all these paintings look much darker than they originally were.”

Also taken from the courtroom were Root oil portraits of former judges Anthony Thornton, Samuel W. Morrison and Howland J. Hamlin, which also bore the dark discoloration of time, tobacco and dust.

Lilly added, “You may have thought you had seen them (the paintings) before, but after they are cleaned, you will be totally amazed at the color and detail. It will be like seeing them for the first time. These paintings will be on eye level, not way up high. You will be looking right into the eyes of history as seen by the artist. You will be totally amazed at the detail Root was capable of.”

Lilly and Judge Michael Kiley looked over a small pastel portrait of Judge Kelly, who lived 1847-1936, in an oval frame with glass. The portrait had been in a protected state and kept in a separate room. The colors were vibrant and realistic. But while looking at the portrait, Lilly and Kiley made another discovery. “This is a Root!” exclaimed Lilly and he pointed out the artist’s signature in a shadow area of the portrait. “We had never known before that this was one of his!”

From Shelbyville on Sunday, the group loaded up about 100 paintings. “We collected at the courthouse, the Shelby County Historical Society, schools and homes. These will be on display at the Kirkland Art Center with the 57 we had collected earlier. This will be the largest collection of Root paintings ever assembled in one place.”

Walker said that based on the preliminary sketches of the gallery layout, the Lincoln-Thornton will probably be the centerpiece. “When you walk in, it should be right in the middle of the exhibit.”

Ed Boedecker is known locally as one of the most avid Root admirers. Boedecker was in the van as the large painting was being hammered shut for transport. “This is quite a responsibility, handling this historic piece of Shelby County memorabilia. In all the years of looking at this picture, this is the first time I actually touched it.”

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