Editor's note: The following article was written by, and is reprinted with permission of, Sharon Long Baerny. The article was featured in the July/August 1995 issue of Artifact, pp 9-13. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay or catalogue, please contact Artifact, directly by phone number at (206) 813-2449, or by US mail at PO Box 1418, Kent, WA 98035.
Public Art, Public History
by Sharon Long Baerny
During the Depression, the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated a number of federal art patronage programs in an effort to utilize the potential social value of art. The best-known program of the period, the Federal Art Project, stemmed from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and provided work relief for unemployed artists. Equally significant, but less recognized today, the Section of Painting and Sculpture of the Treasury Department also employed artists. Both programs shared an over-riding concern with exposing the general public to the enriching influence of art in people's daily lives. However, the Section, as a non-relief program, differed dramatically from the Project. Section artists were commissioned through competitions, regardless of their economic need, to create quality art in federal buildings, primarily Post Offices.
The Section commissioned almost 1,100 murals and sculptures for new Post Offices built between 1934 and 1943. Art was placed in Post Offices because in many communities the Post Office served as the most visible and accessible link, both physically and symbolically, between the federal government and the people. Section murals identified and promoted the connection between the government and the people through a style known as Regionalism, the predominant style of the 1930s, which developed from the public's preference for locally relevant, easily recognizable subject matter. The Section promoted Regionalism by emphasizing local and regional competitions among artists and expressing a preference for the style, while Regionalism fostered the Section's goal to provide accessible, appealing art to people.
Artists commissioned by the Section faced several difficulties. The mural not only had to aesthetically and thematically satisfy the Section administration in Washington, D.C., but also the townspeople. In addition, artists worked around the limitations of the allotted space. Most murals were placed at one end of a narrow lobby over the Postmaster's door flanked by two bulletin boards, with light fixtures hung in front. Some artists actually incorporated these architectural elements into the murals or worked around them. Other artists painted a rectangular canvas to fit above the door. Artists were also expected to achieve a color harmony between the mural and the building interior, which resulted in Douglas Nicholson's (b. 1907) pink, green, and brown mural in Camas, Washington. The odd, unnaturalistic colors emulate the marble wall paneling.
As public art required to fulfill certain criteria of public popularity and government ideology, the murals typically featured subjects specific to a locale. For example, Jacob Elshin's (1892-1976) murals painted in 1939 for the Post Office near the University of Washington in Seattle feature a Historical Review of Education and Present Day Education. In the historical scene, men in clothes of various periods gather around a long table with the instruments of their fields of study. The view of present day education shows men and women occupied with the latest technology of their day, and is an exemplar of the high quality representational style found in the best of Section murals. Artists commissioned to paint murals were often easel painters and occasionally had trouble adapting to the larger format of the usually 6 foot by 15 foot murals. However, Elshin has convincingly integrated several figures engrossed in varying activities across a wide area. The image is unusual for the 1930s, because both men and women are shown engaged in educational pursuits at a time when traditional gender roles were emphasized and women were encouraged to stay home and not compete with men for the scarce job opportunities. The Seattle murals are also unusual for their location. Most new Post Offices were constructed in more rural areas and, as a result, focused on scenes relevant to local history or industry, rather than the more urban subject of higher education.
The predominant themes in Section murals are historical subjects pertinent to a town's founding or early days, and images of the industry specific to a locale such as logging, fishing or agriculture. Occasionally, a mural incorporated both aspects into either a mural that shows a historical view of local industry, or one that includes historical and contemporary views of an industry or town. Another predominant theme, depictions of Native Americans, resulted in part from the adherence to local tradition, and in part from an interest in Native American culture that reflected the increasing nationalism of the period. Again, the murals focused either on historical or contemporary scenes, or a combination of both.
In general, the historic murals commissioned by the Section show a positive view of the past and avoid reflecting tragedy or conflict. Instead the images are progressive and reflect American ideals. Views of the past provided a sense of continuity in a time of economic crisis; early Americans had survived as a result of hard work and so would Americans of the 1930s. Occasionally, the murals are a calculated blending of historical elements and indications of future progress. Oregon artist David McCosh (1903-1981) successfully achieved such a combination for a mural in Kelso, Washington, titled Incidents in the Lives of Lewis and Clark, completed in 1938. McCosh accurately portrayed several elements of indigenous Native American life such as the homes and stacked canoes placed in the context of a Northwest landscape. Although a historical scene, the image includes references to future progress. In the center of the mural, a farmer kneels by his meticulously rendered plow, while behind him people receive mail and one man reads a newspaper.
Another example of a historic scene also focuses on labor and progress. Northwest artist Lance W. Hart (1892-1941) painted Construction of a Skid Road in the '80s in 1940 for the Post Office in Snohomish, Washington, which has since been converted to the City Hall. Completed the year before his death, Hart's historical mural focuses on the late 19th century loggers laboring to move a recently felled tree, while nearby other men work to down more trees. Stumps in the distance and a paddleboat on the river signify the progress already made in conquering the land and transporting the lumber. The perseverance of earlier generations and a sense of pride and optimism is conveyed. The style of the mural resonates with New Deal ideology with strong men shown in heroic form within a clearly delineated and easily "read" image.
After an artist received a commission for a Post Office mural, the Postmaster or an appointed committee suggested a subject, and the artist either traveled to the town to do research, or studied a topic at the library. For example, Jacob Elshin actually visited underground mines and sketched miners at work for his mural in Renton, Washington, that depicted this historic aspect of the city. Another example is the mural painted by Mordi Gassner (b. 1899), a New York artist selected to paint a mural for Lynden, Washington. When Gassner contacted the Postmaster for suggested subjects, he was inundated with information about the town's early prominent citizen Phoebe Goodell Judson. During this period, murals featured the "common man" as part of the New Deal message of Roosevelt's collectivism, instead of celebrating a particular person. In addition, murals emphasized traditional female roles, and distinguished women were rarely chosen as subjects. Gassner's mural, titled Three Ages of Phoebe Goodell Judson and dated 1942, is therefore unusual in two respects. The mural depicts the arrival of young Judson to a riverbank on one side, and the industrialization of the town on the other, while Judson pens her memoirs at her desk in the center.
Besides historic images specific to a locale, the Section murals often portrayed the contemporary industries significant to a town, while reinforcing and glorifying the work ethic and the rewards of labor. The generic figures representative of the common man typically labor and toil with muscular bodies and strong hands. Images of leisure rarely appear in Section murals. In addition to the heroic proportions of the figures, artists emphasized the accurate representation of the particular industry and landscape depicted in order to satisfy community expectations.
So integral to the Northwest experience, logging was also the subject of a mural by a non-Northwest artist. In 1940, Richard Haines (1906-1984) painted Skid Road for Shelton, Washington. Haines received numerous commissions from the Section and also painted murals in Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, and Minnesota. Haines's mural shows a driver leading a team of oxen that drag a log down a skid road. The only signs of progress are a few stumps, the results of the logger's efforts. Instead the emphasis seems to be on the unlimited resources of the forest. No sky is visible, only an unending background of trees. The mural is unusual because the man and oxen are at rest. However, the labor of man and animal is conveyed by the long skid road they have already traveled that snakes into the distance. And despite his restful pose, the logger's strength is evident in his huge, muscular hands.
Northwest artist Kenneth Callahan (1906-1986) painted Industries of Lewis County for Centralia, Washington, in 1937. Without the usual obstruction of bulletin boards on either side of the postmaster's door common to Post Office murals of the period, Callahan fully utilized the space allotted. Painted in Callahan's typical style, the mural diverges from the usual Section preference for clear edges. The brushwork is loose and dry without definite outlines. The primary industries of the county are depicted including the dairy industry, strawberries, lumber, and poultry arranged in four different sections of the mural, but only men work. A woman in a dress watches from nearby holding a rake and standing beside her young daughter.
Despite the focus on images of labor, a sharp distinction
arose between depicting laborers at work and illuminating the tragedy that
might result from that effort. People were generally receptive to the murals
and proud; often the mural was the only original art in an entire town.
However, some people opposed the murals because they opposed the expanding
role and control of the government during the New Deal era, and to them
the mural represented
government imposition. Or the subject of the mural proved unacceptable. Fletcher Martin's (1904-1979) original sketch for Kellogg, Idaho, depicted an injured miner being carried on a stretcher by two of his colleagues. The mural related to the area's primary industry, and was defended by the Section based on aesthetic and spiritual merits, but the public and mining interests both opposed it. The public resisted the subject because it was a familiar tragedy and no one wanted the reminder emblazoned on the Post Office wall. Martin instead painted a historical scene of two prospectors discovering a local mine site, which he titled Discovery and completed in 1941.
Scenes of agriculture also provided an opportunity to celebrate the common man, the fertility of land and man's power over it as the result of hard work. The Farm Security Administration hired photographers such as Dorothea Lange to document the plight of the farmers following the drought and devastation of farm land that had preceded the Great Depression, but murals commissioned by the Section concentrated on a positive and optimistic view. One of the most outstanding examples of Section sponsored public art in the Northwest, Carl Morris's (1911-1993) murals in Eugene titled Willamette Valley Lumber, Farming and Husbandry combine industry and agriculture, although in two different panels opposite from each other on the lobby walls. Completed in 1943, one panel shows men at work among the machinery of the lumber industry while the other depicts various aspects of local farming and animal husbandry in three different scenes. The murals epitomize the Regionalist style and subject matter so characteristic of Section commissions. The figures are strong and well-proportioned and clearly set against recognizable topography and technology. Morris compressed several different activities into each panel, and accurately rendered the details. The scenes appear orderly and men labor diligently at their tasks.
Peggy Strong's (1914-1956) mural titled The Saga of Wenatchee painted for the Post Office in Wenatchee, Washington, which is now the North Central Washington Museum, also successfully exemplifies several characteristics of Section murals. In fact, the mural is perhaps one of the best examples nationally, in part because Strong achieved a remarkably complex composition both in use of space and combination of information. The past and present exist side by side, a blatant expression of the continuity of hard labor and ideals necessary to weather the Depression. The rewards for the hard work of the pioneers on the left clearing land and building homesteads appear on the right where laborers harvest and load up crates of the abundant fruit and cows graze contentedly in the grassy pasture. Central to both aspects of these images is the function of the Post Office itself, the delivery of mail. Strong also effectively used the awkward allotted mural space by separating the lower portion around the bulletin boards and door from the main part of the image through a rock wall. The foreground figures stand level, with a logger and miner on the left, and a farmer sowing seeds while another picks apples shown on the right. Behind, the ground tilts up and figures and horses lean out and over the viewer. In the upper right corner, modern buildings and a train hint at the progress to come.
The images of local industry and history reflected American interest in defining a national identity during a period of introspection. This mood also led to increased recognition of the Native American contribution to the national consciousness, and, as a result, Native Americans were depicted in several Section murals. Examples of murals that include representations of Native Americans are found in Toppenish and Colville, Washington, and Grants Pass and Ontario, Oregon. One of the best is in Saint Anthony, Idaho. Elizabeth Davey Lochrie (1890-1981), a Montana artist, received commissions for two murals with historic scenes in Idaho: Pioneers on the Oregon Trail along the Snake River completed in 1938 for Burley, and The Fur Traders for Saint Anthony in 1939. In the later mural, pioneers offer blankets, beads, cookware and guns to Native Americans in exchange for furs. The mural is an accurate and detailed image with great attention to the portrayal of the Native Americans contemplating the trade. Lochrie specialized in portraits of the Blackfoot of her home state and throughout her career she created more than 1,000 paintings, murals, and sculptures of them.
The Section also made an effort to commission Native American artists to paint murals. In the Northwest, Andrew Standing Soldier (1917-1967), a Sioux from South Dakota, exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery and the Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco the same year he completed his commission to paint a mural for Blackfoot, Idaho, in 1939. Titled The Arrival Celebration and the Round-Up, the five panel tempera covers most of the Post Office lobby walls. The images, set in wide open spaces of the prairie and drawn from Native American life, show the round up of cattle and subsequent branding.
The murals commissioned by the Section of Painting and Sculpture of the Treasury Department were truly public art and were intended to be permanent, although unfortunately several have been destroyed or moved as cities grew and Post Offices expanded or relocated. For example, Jacob Elshin's murals of past and present day education were painted for the University district Post Office in Seattle and although the murals hang in their original locations, the lobby has been converted to an employee area inaccessible to the public. Another Elshin mural which was painted for Renton, Washington, now hangs in a library. In Portland, murals sponsored by both the Section and the WPA have been destroyed or the buildings sold.
The Section murals provided original art where it had never existed before. Abstract work was rarely commissioned because the government gave the people what they would accept rather than try to persuade them that an avant garde mural was in their best interest and would improve their taste and their lives. The process of selection was also democratic and the citizens were involved in the mural selections. The Section, the artists, and the public all compromised to achieve murals satisfactory to everyone. Some people claim this compromise in and of itself lowers the artistic quality of the murals, but the process of democracy was part of each mural's creation. The murals should not be judged removed from context, or from the nationalism and ideology that motivated them. The murals are no less artistic as a result of their public role and popular appeal, and the glimpse into history they offer is worth a visit.
Karal Ann Marling, Wall to Wall: A Cultural History of Post-Office Murals in the Great Depression, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982.
Marlene Park and Gerald E. Markowitz, Democratic Vistas; post offices
and public art in the New Deal, Philadelphia: Temple University Press,
About the author
Art historian Sharon Long Baerny was, at the time of authoring the above article, Editor of Artifact, a bi-monthly regional magazine of the arts and antiques.
For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 11/28/11
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