Plains Folk

Up Against the Wall


I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: public art is a risky business. Whenever a public authority attempts to make judgments on behalf of the people in matters of aesthetic taste, somebody is going to be unhappy, maybe even enraged. And if the public authority making decisions is a distant federal agency, then you’re just about certain to have controversy.

Lately we’ve been looking into the dispute about the origins of the Indian mural in the New Rockford, North Dakota, post office–one of three federal post office murals in the state dating from the 1930s. Background research on the subject reveals that communities up and down the Great Plains had controversies about post office art during this era. A good book telling this story is Wall-to-Wall America: A Cultural History of Post-Office Murals in the Great Depression, by Karal Ann Marling.

Federal officials kept trying to impose on local communities not only unfamiliar artistic styles and tastes but also interpretations of community history and life that were not acceptable. During the 1930s people on the plains got a little testy about how they were being depicted–the Grapes of Wrath and all that. Sometimes they just outright rejected the art being thrust upon on them.

In 1939 the Section of Fine Arts, which contracted with artists to do murals in post offices, conducted a special contest called the 48 States Competition–meant to place a work of art in a post office in every state. A good idea, perhaps, but poorly executed. The works were supposed to depict local things and be designed with local advice.

So, a lovely mural of wheat shocks, or stooks, ended up in Flandreau, South Dakota. The only problem with it is that the artist, Matt Ziegler, did not intend it for this location. He was from Missouri, and so he painted cap-sheaves on the shocks. Plains folk hardly ever put capsheaves on their shocks.

Artist Philip von Saltza painted a mural called Wild Horses by Moonlight for the post office in Safford, Arizona. When the Section of Fine Arts moved the piece to Schuyler, Nebraska, he painted over the cacti in the mural and replaced them with poplars.

In Caldwell, Kansas, the postmaster, logically enough, wanted a herd of cattle coming up the Chisholm Trail. The artist assigned to the task, Kenneth Evett, kept trying to pass off other scenes. Eventually postal authorities intervened, and Caldwell got its cows. Anthony, Kansas, got a fetching wheat-harvest mural entitled Turning a Corner, and Seneca got one called Men and Wheat, both of which satisfied local tastes.

The citizens of Purcell, Oklahoma, were fairly content with the bland pasture scene installed in their post office. They might not have been if they had known that the much better mural originally intended for Purcell, Loading Cattle, by James Baase Turnbull, had been hijacked and placed in Jackson, Missouri.

The biggest controversy, however, centered on Salina Kansas. There, in 1941, artists Isobel Bate and Harold Black envisioned a great series of eight murals from Coronado and Juan Pedilla (yes, mis-spelled by the artist) to contemporary wheat fields. One depicted a farm woman looking over her should at a tornado, her blouse open to the waist for no apparent reason. In general, citizens and the postmaster considered the murals “libelous” to Kansas, and so they were warehoused.

The paintings may not have been libelous, but like many of the post office murals, they were uninformed and inept. There is some kind of lesson about federalism in all this. And here is perhaps a final commentary. When we ask people in New Rockford about their post office mural, most of them say they never noticed they had one. I suspect it may be the same in Caldwell and Flandreau.

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