Art of the New Deal

Wednesday, November 22, 2006
Customers of the Jackson post office stood under a mural named "Loading Cattle" that was painted by James Turnbull in 1940. (Diane L. Wilson)

When Ellen Ryan walks into a post office these days, she's not looking to buy stamps or mail a letter. She's looking for artwork.

The Southeast Missouri State University graduate student in history received two grants totaling $1,500 over the past two years from the State Historical Society of Missouri to document murals and sculptures that were created and installed in 33 post offices in Missouri in the 1930s and early 1940s.

She recently wrote her thesis on the Depression-era artwork in the post offices in the St. Louis and Southeast Missouri areas.

In Southeast Missouri, murals adorn post offices in Jackson, Charleston, Dexter, Fredericktown and Ste. Genevieve. They were commissioned by the federal government and created between 1939 and 1942. "They are great paintings," Ryan said.

But most people barely glance at them, she said. "You are not in a museum setting, so they will be looked at differently," she said.

SEMO graduate student, Ellen Ryan, has researched the murals and sculptures that were commissioned in the 1930s and 1940s for post offices in Missouri. (Diane L. Wilson)

Most of the murals are about 5 feet by 12 feet. They were painted on canvas, which was installed on walls using a lead paint as an adhesive and then covered with varnish, Ryan said.

Gary Kremer, executive director of the state historical society, said the murals are more than just artwork. "They are also works of social history," he said. "It offers a window into the culture of the time."

Kremer said the historical society wants to draw attention to such artwork in hopes the U.S. Postal Service will preserve them. "Many of these buildings built during that generation are now being demolished," he said.

Postal officials required the artists to get to know the region they were going to depict. Each artist submitted a prospectus to a regional competition. If they were then invited to participate, they would submit sketches of their proposed murals. For an approved mural, the artist received $20 per square foot in three installments from a New Deal program called the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture.

"Although agriculture was a theme in many of the Midwestern murals, artists portrayed manufacturing and small-town life as well," Ryan wrote in her thesis.

"At a time when much of the nation's populace was struggling to survive, the murals depicted an ideal life with scenes of abundant crops, prosperous industries and wholesome living, generating optimism in many who viewed them," she wrote.

The federal painting and sculpture office initially chose Webster Groves, Mo., artist Fred Conway's tranquil scene of cattle grazing in front of large haystacks to grace a wall of the Jackson post office. Another contender was artist James Turnbull of Maplewood, Mo., whose proposed mural depicting the loading of cattle onto a train car was chosen for the Purcell, Okla., post office.

The Southeast Missourian in October 1939 argued that Turnbull's painting would be better suited for Jackson. The newspaper said Cape Girardeau County sent more cattle to market than any county in Oklahoma.

The Dec. 4, 1939, issue of Life magazine showed the winning entries from the national competition. Jackson residents and Adolph Kies, who managed the Cape Girardeau County Livestock Shipping Association, convinced federal officials to make the switch.

Turnbull's work was installed in the Jackson post office July 8, 1940. Conway's painting ended up in the Purcell post office.

Turnbull's mural, titled "Loading Cattle," originally was displayed over the postmaster's door in the post office, now the Jackson Chamber of Commerce office. The mural was moved to the new post office when it opened in the mid-1980s. Today, it sits in a frame above the customer service counter.

The Ste. Genevieve mural, painted in 1942, draws on the area's French culture. It depicts the tradition of young men traveling from house to house to collect food for a banquet. The men, accompanied by musicians, would dance and sing.

It was painted by Martyl Schweig Langsdorf, who used only her first name professionally. Unlike most of the mural artists, Martyl painted her mural on site.

Ryan said the New Deal program made art accessible to the public and fostered a relationship between the artists' and the communities where the murals were displayed.

Artist Joe Jones created murals for the Charleston and Dexter post offices.

A self-taught artist, Jones spent six months in a reformatory for drawing on school walls. At one time, he directed an artists' colony in Ste. Genevieve.

Jones' mural for the Dexter post office depicted five men gathering and husking corn in a field.

Few people noticed the mural at first when it was installed in February 1941. The local newspaper, the Dexter Statesman, didn't report on the mural until two weeks after it had been hung.

"We missed it for several days because we seldom get into that part of the post office," the newspaper reported.

His 1939 mural for the Charleston post office depicting the harvesting of wheat drew criticism from those who felt the mural should have depicted cotton, the area's main crop.

Regardless, Ryan said the Charleston mural is one of her favorites. "It is just beautifully painted," she said.

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