A Colorful History of the Hilariously Offensive Murals in ‘Parks and Recreation’

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A Colorful History of the Hilariously Offensive Murals in ‘Parks and Recreation’

“This is our crown jewel. This is one of our best murals,” Leslie Knope explained as she guided her new friend Ann Perkins through City Hall in the pilot episode of Parks and Recreation. The painting appeared to depict an industrious pioneer woman with an axe, presumably chopping wood just off camera. But when the camera panned, it revealed a Native American woman on her knees, begging for her life and the life of the child in the papoose on her back.

“The Battle of Koniga Creek” was our introduction to the murals of Parks and Recreation, most of which depicted the troubled, often racist history of Pawnee, Indiana. “The objective for ‘The Battle of Koniga Creek,’” Parks and Recreation art director Ian Phillips tells me, “was, ‘What’s the worst possible thing we could put into a mural and Leslie could still call it the crown jewel?’”

While a number of illustrators and painters worked on the murals of Parks and Recreation, Phillips supervised all of their work, and he remained with the series from start to finish. I recently caught up with him to assemble an illustrated guide to Pawnee’s history via these paintings. It’s all totally inoffensive — unless, of course, you happen to be a woman or Native American or Chinese or Irish or Jewish or a magician or just a remotely decent human being.

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The Trial of Chief Wamapo

What Leslie Says: That Chief Wamapo was “convicted of crimes against soldiers.”

What Phillips Says: “The joke is in the title. There’s certainly no trial going on here. This is judge, jury and executioner all in one.

“The murals were based on the real-life WPA Post Office murals. A lot of them had Native Americans and the Old West in them, and they focused on forging a new history and a new America. But to be honest, ‘The Trial of Chief Wamapo’ is probably more accurate than anything out of the real WPA murals.

“Each mural presented their own challenges, mostly because they needed to be funny, but they’re also making fun of very serious topics. For this one, the challenge was, ‘How do you sell a joke so quickly that, anytime anybody walks by this mural, you get it?’ The answer was to put the cannon really close to the Indian chief. If the cannon was on one side and the Indian chief was tied up on the other, it would be two separate entities, and the joke wouldn’t read when you saw it in passing.”

Trading Post

What Leslie Says: That Nathaniel Bixby Mark was “a pioneer who was killed by a tribe of Wamapoke Indians after he traded them a baby for what is now Indianapolis. They cut his face off, and they made it into a dream catcher and they made his legs into rain sticks. The great thing about Indians back then is they used every part of the pioneer.”

What Phillips Says: “There were a lot of discussions about this one. The main question was, ‘What are they trading?’ The answer (executive producers Dan Goor, Mike Schur and Greg Daniels) came up with was that they were selling off a white baby to the Native Americans. Over on the left, you can see another one of the white babies that had been sold. This was the baby trade. It’s pretty terrible.” 

Sunday Boxing

What Leslie Says: That “Sunday Boxing” depicts “a famous fight between Reverend Bradley and Annabeth Stevenson, a widowed mother of seven. The original title was ‘A Lively Fisting,’ but they had to change it for obvious reasons.”

What Phillips Says: “I remember us talking about where he should punch her, and we decided on the gut. If he’s hitting her in the face, then he’s bruising her and taking away her beauty. But the Sunday Boxing Match was a weekly occurrence; it happens every Sunday. This is a normal Sunday in Pawnee. One of Mike (Schur)’s additions was, ‘There should be little kids in there, too.’

“As new murals were needed, Mike would typically come up with an idea, and he’d say, ‘Okay, I think that ‘Sunday Boxing Match’ is a man fighting a woman.’ That was all he would give me. I’d do a sketch, and we’d go back and forth. Once I had a little bit better idea, I’d give it to an illustrator, and we’d really flesh out the design of what the mural was going to be so that everybody could see it beforehand. Then, it went from the illustrator and into a final approval before production.”

When Eagleton Abandoned Pawnee

What Leslie Says: “May 1817, a scrappy group of frontiersmen and women arrive at a hardscrabble chunk of land and call it Pawnee, Indiana.” She then adds, “June 1817, the richest among them take all of their money from the bank and flee up the hill like cowards to form Eagleton.”

What Phillips Says: “In Eagleton, everything is bright and beautiful — the grass is growing, there is a rainbow and doves. Then you look at Pawnee. It’s just dirt and dark clouds and the sky has buzzards. The one Eagleton guy is throwing a Molotov cocktail at Pawnee. But the little kid is my favorite — he’s kicking dirt at the other people walking along. He’s so terrible and mean.”

A Wedding

What Leslie Says: “In 1867, the progressive Reverend Turnbill officiated a wedding between a white woman and a Wamapoke Indian chief. The secret ceremony was beautiful and romantic, but then word got out and the reception was a bloodbath. Fortunately, there were two survivors. Unfortunately, they were both horses.”

What Phillips Says: “The framing was key here, as only the center of the image was seen on camera at first, then the camera pulled out to reveal the entire mural.”

The Spirit of Pawnee

What Leslie Says: “It’s very controversial. We’ve had someone throw acid at it, tomato sauce. Someone tried to stab it once. We really need better security here. We also need better, less offensive history.”

What Phillips Says: “I’m not sure we could have been any more racist here. There are the Prohibitionist women pouring out the liquor, and the guys they’re standing with are Irish, which we indicated with green boots and red beards. The Irishmen were selling the Native Americans the liquor. Then the Chinese, who were building the railroads, were laughing at the Native Americans being thrown to the side. At the same time, the Chinese have all lost their own culture because the guy in the foreground is eating a hamburger.

“For a lot of these, we took cues from real depictions at the time, which were very racist. The Chinese have pigtails and buckteeth, which is literally plucked from actual depictions and political cartoons from back then — same with the Irish and the Indians.”

Zoo of Curiosities

What Leslie Says: “Pawnee has a tricky history with welcoming foreign visitors.” 

What Phillips Says: “An Orthodox Jew passed through Pawnee, and they didn’t understand at all. They said, ‘Let’s put him in a cage for everyone to see.’ His label says UNKNOWN,’ perhaps because he spoke Hebrew. There are also two children fascinated by whatever he is. The joke wasn’t, ‘These are terrible people in Pawnee,’ it was, ‘They’re backwards and uneducated,’ and this is an example of that. That’s part of why this guy seems fine. He’s in a cage, yes, but he’s reading a book; he’s comfortable.”

Sarah Nelson Quindle

What Leslie Says: “In 1849, Sarah Nelson Quindle exposed her elbow outdoors, which was a Class A felony. Although she felt the law unjust, she acknowledged that she had broken it, and she nobly accepted her punishment to be set adrift on Lake Michigan like a human popsicle.”

What Phillips Says: “We modeled this one after those common photographs of waves crashing over the lighthouse. Sarah Nelson Quindle is very stoic out there on her iceberg as she floats away. It was based on Leslie being a very stoic character in this episode. It also helped to give history to what happens to women in Pawnee who are strong and proud — they’re sent off on icebergs.” 

Pawnee’s First Witch Burning and Pawnee’s Last Witch Burning

What Leslie Says: “Pawnee is an incredibly superstitious town. A traveling magician came through one time and he pulled a rabbit out of a hat, and the mob burned him at the stake for being a witch. The year was 1973.” 

What Phillips Says: Originally, the joke was going to be that the citizens of Pawnee burned two magicians — one in the early 1900s and another in the 1970s. While only the second mural was directly addressed, the first was created anyway. “At the beginning of a new mural, we’d have discussions for maybe two weeks,” Phillips tells me. “Then we’d get into the preliminary sketches, and those would take anywhere from three to five days. The actual painting of the murals would take probably four or five days.” 

This means that about a month’s worth of work (times two) went into one throwaway witch-burning joke. But given how funny it is that the people of Pawnee were that afraid of magic, it was totally worth it.

Production art for “Pawnee’s Last Witch Burning,” which Phillips says was inspired by a drive-in movie. Art provided by Ian Phillips

Wildflowers

What Leslie Says: She describes the bench in front of this mural as her favorite place. While every other Parks and Recreation mural was a joke, “Wildflowers” was totally sincere, as it had a central part in Leslie and Ben’s love story. 

What Phillips Says: “Leslie was trying to make Pawnee a better place, and how do you do that? How do you show she’s there to beautify her town? She wants Pawnee to be better, and this mural embodies her happiness and spirit.”

The Pawnee Tobacco Trade

What Leslie Says: Nada. This one actually never made the show.

What Phillips Says: “I found an original watercolor that I’d sent off to Mike Schur and Greg Daniels, and it was about the Pawnee tobacco trade. There was a woman who had been harvesting tobacco. The joke was that everyone in Pawnee didn’t think it was unhealthy, so everyone in Pawnee smoked, including the babies. There’s a toddler sitting there in the tobacco field, smoking. This is just an example, though — one of the old emails I found about murals probably had 20 different ideas for murals that we never made.” 

Jerry’s Painting

What Leslie Says: “I love it.”

What Phillips Says: “Mike came up with the idea that Leslie is a centaur and Tom is a Cherub, and it’s done in such a way where it’s reminiscent of very traditional paintings. Of course, nobody sees it as Jerry being an amazing painter; they just see fault in the art — except for Leslie. I believe that Amy Poehler is the proud owner of this painting. If I remember correctly, she took this with her when the show ended.”

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