Hundreds view Senior High’s history-rich murals

If you see a lot of people in Billings rubbing sore necks on Tuesday, it might have something to do with the “Save Our Murals” open house at Billings Senior High School Monday night.

Hundreds of people turned out to gawk up at murals painted by generations of Senior High students, to donate money toward their restoration and preservation and to put in orders for a book on the murals, planned for publication next fall.


Kris Korfanta

Some of the more than 100 muralists were on hand Monday, to talk about the artworks that adorn walls, stairwells and so many nooks and crannies of the three-story building that murals are still being discovered.

Kris Korfanta, a 1975 graduate who lives in Sheridan, Wyo., hadn’t seen her painting of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in more than 30 years, and she was pleased to realize that “it doesn’t look too bad.” Given a chance, though, she wouldn’t mind coming back to work on Panza’s hands.

“It still bugs me,” she said. “His hands need fixed.”

Les Hein, an art teacher at Senior from 1966 to 1983, taught art to a few of the muralists over the years, and he had a chance to create his own mural when attended Senior High in the 1940s.

“I was supposed to paint one, but I never got around to it,” he said. “I ran out of time.”

Kristeen Keup, an organizer of the Save Our Murals effort and of the open house, was impressed by the hundreds of visitors, and by the number of people making donations and ordering books.

Keup, a Senior High graduate and retired Senior High teacher, said there are so many murals scattered throughout the high school that even in the past week they discovered some that were painted by unknown artists. Some of that missing information was supplied by visitors Monday, but there are still gaps in their knowledge of the murals.

One big mystery, Keup said, is the location of a mural painted by John Dahl, now a Hollywood director whose recent credits include episodes of “Breaking Bad” and “House of Cards.”

His mural apparently was covered up by a display case, Keup said, but nobody has reached him yet to ask where it was. She did meet someone Monday who knows Dahl’s mother and hopes to get a message through to Dahl, Keup said.

There’s no mystery about Bruce Ryniker’s mural. It is very large, very bright and prominently displayed on the first floor. It shows race cars roaring around a tight corner.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

It wasn’t just artwork attracting gawkers. Stacey Uecker put his daughter Eliana on his shoulders so she could look at his 1996 state championship basketball team photo.

By the time he was in high school, Ryniker had already been drawing cars for years, and he went on to a career as a designer for General Motors, Chrysler and even the toymaker Mattel, where he created Hot Wheels cars. He and his wife, Marilee, who met at Senior in their senior year, 1958, moved back to Billings 10 years ago after Bruce retired.

He credits Senior High art teacher Earl Bailey with pushing him in the right direction. While other students in Bailey’s class were working on posters for school events, Ryniker said, “I sat in the back and drew pictures of cars.”

One day Bailey came back and stood over Ryniker, but not to scold him. He threw a catalog for the Art Center School in Los Angeles on Ryniker’s desk and told him it was a place “where they actually encourage you to draw pictures of cars.”

Remarkably, Ryniker said, at one time there were six Senior High graduates from the 1950s and 1960s designing cars for the major automakers. But Marilee said that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

“There’s a lot of encouragement of young people’s art here, and it really showed,” she said.

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