(Editor's note: Somehow, peripatetic Illinois writer Doug Kamholz keeps finding wonders to see that haven't occurred to the rest of us. Who figured out that post offices and government buildings have fabulous art we need to see? Doug did, and in his newest post, he tells us how it came about and he even shows us how to find the 13 places in Maryland, and priceless art across America, to take in.)
by Doug Kamholz
Serendipity in the dark COVID cloud found more dads with kids in parks and home projects finally finished. On the recreation front, my wife Sheila and I, masked and distanced, found stirring art in area post offices. You can too!
Please slog through some perfunctory bureaucracy so we can get to the good stuff. The Great Depression spawned huge public works between 1933 and ‘43 as government scrambled to get our basic needs met. These are generally known as New Deal or WPA (Works Progress Administration) or WPA-era programs. Some involved various arts. One had three names: the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture which became the Treasury Section of Fine Arts which was later shortened to simply The Section. It awarded commissions through competitions to acquire original art for installation into public buildings. I’ve got more details later but that’s quite enough for now. Whew!
Probably ten years ago I was dawdling in a state-sponsored artisan shop in southern Illinois. I bought a slim booklet called A Guide to Depression Era Art in Illinois Post Offices, by Mary Emma Thompson, Ph.D. It sat unexamined (as books sometimes do) for quite a time. But a couple years ago the damndemic brought it to the fore. Now before I go on with this Prairie State adventure, you need to know there may well be some Mary Emma Thompson-type in your state who did just what she did. Even if not, rest assured that going to this internet site will get you every P.O. art location in your state. And I am confident you will find the same joy Sheila and I have felt 40 times standing in front of these public wonders. (OK, it's true. There have been a couple duds along the way.) We have another 30 to see for the complete Illinois trove.
Our method works best in smaller places, of which there are plenty. We plot a route to half a dozen or so towns with post office art fairly close to one another. We check P.O. street addresses. We see which ones might close for lunch. We hop in the car and go. Let's take Staunton, Illinois, for example, about an hour south of where we live. Chances are great there is a parking space near the front door. Stop the car. Climb the steps. Don your mask. Step inside. In this case see the $800 commissioned "Going to Work" by Ralf Hendricksen, a typical daily scene in coal country with five hardhatted men heading to the mine. One miner's wife is there with a concerned look, historically sadly justified, and a boy totes his dad's lunch bucket. All five faces are set and serious. Rare here are depictions of two African Americans in the crew, though this painting comes 20-some years into the Great Migration when six million Black people came north.
Joy and celebration reign on the P.O. wall a couple hours southeast of Staunton, over in McLeansboro. Their wide mural paints a carnival atmosphere with two, count 'em, two, balloon salesmen, as folks gather on the fairgrounds to witness the town's first airmail delivery in 1912. Artist Dorothea Mierisch was paid $700 for her oil on canvas.
Of course there is little chance you are going to show up in Staunton or McLeansboro. My intent is to illustrate, so to speak, the range and mission of these artworks as well as tell you there are some right down the road from wherever you are reading this. Writ larger, this and other art programs paint a picture, so to speak, of one part of how our nation responded to a devastating crisis.
The art program for post offices and public buildings was small, totaling $2.5 million for 1,100 murals and 300 sculptures. The larger Federal Arts Project spent $35 million to support artworkers. Your state likely has a trove of those, too, stowed in state museums and public universities. Part of those funds furthered careers of photographer Dorothea Lange and painter Jackson Pollock. Also there was a Federal Writers Project with a budget of $27 million. One of its proudest products was a set of guides to all 48 states and then-territorial Alaska. You can travel vicariously by reading any of them for free online here and get a detailed sense of America almost a century ago. Illinois had a particularly strong Federal Writers Project. Check out some of my state's participants: Nelson Algren, Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, Saul Bellow and "Studs" Terkel.
All this public art and literature money was a small slice of an $11 billion New Deal/WPA budget that put 8.5 million jobless folks back on payrolls, mostly doing manual labor.
Back to the P.O. Just as all those WPA state guides speak of another time, visiting post offices in your area will conjure the same. Many in small towns are similar, all built around 1930. Step across deep red floor tiles that turn halfway up the walls. See the crafted wood framing doors and business windows. Watch the glint of gold lettering spelling out Postmaster or Money Orders or C.O.D. Some still rent their original banks of brass or bronze P.O. boxes just like my dad visited every day in Rockton, Illinois. Of course some post offices have been replaced, but their Depression-era art may have been rehung in a new (and much less interesting) building.
Mural themes often showed Americans at work or leisure. Depictions of harsh realities of the times were not favored, and community members often had veto power in this quite democratic civic program. Nonetheless, it it is hard to miss the influence of Diego Rivera and that Mexican social realism mural style. In all, about 850 artists, including 162 women and three African Americans, won post office commissions.
Again I have the pandemic to thank for moving me to various fairly quick, inexpensive and low-contact adventures. (Though several times young postmasters and postmistresses have been happy to learn about what is on their walls; some have photocopied their page in our little guidebook.)
Here's a secret before I go. If you ever see a sizable piece of art in a gallery or museum with a weirdly out-of-place black or blank rectangle across the center of the bottom, you will know that mural once caressed the top of a postmaster's office door.
It's been fun playing post office with you. Travel well and, as the Irish say, safe home.
Postscript 1: To see a companion photo album of 12 shots featuring some of the art described this month, those of you with access to Facebook can search for Douglas Kamholz, then click Photos (next to Posts, About and Friends) and click again for Albums and then one last click on the one entitled MOXIE GETS P.O.’d.
Postscript 2: I offer this short apology to my readers in Africa, Asia and Europe to whom pretty much none of this month’s subject applies, though I guess I could say that about any “Miles with Moxie.”