POST OFFICE MURALS
Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration developed four programs to ease unemployment among American artists during the Great Depression of the 1930s and to secure embellishments for public buildings. The Public Buildings Branch of the Treasury Department administered the Section of Painting and Sculpture, later called the Section of Fine Arts, and artist Edward Bruce administered its operation. The section project hired artists to decorate new post offices and federal buildings with murals, paintings, and sculpture, encouraging them to embrace the theme of the American Scene. Officials believed that murals showing local history, technological progress, prosperity, industry, agriculture, and American landscapes could be reassuring and promote pride in local communities during the depression years.
Officials held anonymous national or regional competitions that they published regularly in Section Bulletins. University of Oklahoma art professor Oscar Jacobson served as a technical director for the section project in Oklahoma, and juries of art experts and architects selected artists from sketches they submitted for state or regional buildings. Artists who failed to secure a commission for a mural in one location might be asked to paint one in another if their sketches were considered good. In fact, many Oklahoma towns received murals as a result of competitions held in urban areas outside the state. Idabel, Madill, Sayre, and Wewoka received murals resulting from the Amarillo, Texas competition, and Guymon, Poteau, and Tahlequah acquired murals as a result of submissions for the Dallas postal annex. In a unique situation, officials announced that one opportunity, in Okemah, would be limited to Oklahoma Indian artists.
State and regional muralists created work in thirty-one Oklahoma communities between 1937 and 1942. Most murals survive today either in their original locations, in new post offices, or in museums. Of the total number of Oklahoma section murals, Oklahomans painted seven. Six of these were executed by American Indian artists and the seventh by University of Oklahoma art professor Edith Mahier. Women painted one-third of the total number of state murals.
Commissioned artists conducted research in individual communities prior to beginning their murals in order to discuss topics with local citizens and assure historical accuracy in their work. They interpreted the American Scene through portrayals of Indian culture, land runs, the cattle industry, local or regional historical events, the postal service, and the development of transportation and communication, in a variety of visual styles. Artists gave the program mixed reviews. Some were grateful for employment during the Great Depression, and others were frustrated over what they considered restrictive rules. Citizens in many, though not all, communities were pleased with the completed work. The Section of Painting and Sculpture's program, while not perfect, made possible a collection of public art work in Oklahoma, enhanced the relationship among artists and citizens, and provided employment for out-of-work artists.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Nicholas A. Calcagno, New Deal Murals in Oklahoma: A Bicentennial Project (Miami, Okla.: Pioneer Printing, Inc., 1976). Belisario R. Contreras, Tradition and Innovation in New Deal Art (Lewisburg, Va.: Bucknell University Press, 1983). Karal Marling, Wall-to-Wall America: A Cultural History of Post-Office Murals in the Great Depression (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982). Richard D. McKinzie, The New Deal for Artists (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973). Francis V. O'Connor, comp., Art for the Millions: Essays From the 1930s By Artists and Administrators of the WPA Federal Art Project (Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1973). Marlene Park and Gerald E. Markowitz, Democratic Vistas: Post Offices and Public Art in the New Deal (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984).
Sally Bradstreet Soelle
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