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New Deal murals a big deal

States are keen to preserve government commissioned 1930s artworks. 'They really depict the way life was.'

June 26, 2004|Cain Burdeau | Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — A Cajun town about 150 miles west of here is playing historical detective, offering a $2,000 reward for the recovery of a New Deal mural its post office once had on its wall.

But Eunice, La., is not on some loony chase. Towns across the country are on similar pursuits to preserve public murals commissioned by government programs ushered in by Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal after he was elected president in 1932.

"They're being recognized as cultural artifacts," said Jon Donlon, a Louisiana tourism consultant who has worked on bringing attention to the state's murals. Donlon noted that there were few examples of such cultural artifacts in the country, where "things that are more Disney-like" seem to proliferate.

Artists -- like everyone else -- went broke after the stock market crash of 1929; in the ensuing Depression, the government put them to work. New Deal programs such as the Works Progress Administration paid artists solid wages -- $38.28 a week for a professional artist and $13.70 for a laborer -- to brighten a world of factory layoffs and bloody strikes, train-hopping hobos and dispiriting soup kitchens.

They painted murals in Washington, D.C. -- at the Department of Interior and post office buildings -- and were sent to far-flung places, from Wauwatosa, Wis., to Selma, Calif., to adorn government buildings and schools.

About 1,400 murals were painted in U.S. post offices, and an effort is underway to track down about 200 -- including the Eunice one -- whose status is uncertain, said Dallan Wordekemper, a preservation officer with the U.S. General Services Administration.

"It's an asset and the intent is to maintain that asset," Wordekemper said of the murals.

According to federal records, the Eunice mural, 12 feet by 5 feet, was lost during renovations in 1967. The black-and-white mural by Laura Lewis, according to a reproduction, shows a woman standing along a fence facing a small farmhouse and barn. Chickens forage in the grass; plowed rows recede into the distance under a wide sky.

"It tells another important piece of our community with its history," said Celeste Gomez, director of the St. Landry Parish Tourist Commission.

The St. Landry tourism board has used magazine advertisements in its search. "Help Find This Louisiana Treasure!" one ad pleads.

"The rekindling of interest in WPA has tied together with the wave of patriotism that has crossed the United States, and people have new appreciation for their heritage in their backyards," said Sharon Calcote, director of Heritage Tourism Development at the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism.

The murals -- some by major artists including Thomas Hart Benton -- often portrayed hope and unity.

"These murals were kind of an attempt to put a kind face on things which were very bleak at the time," Donlon said.

That time of trouble and the nation's ability to overcome adversity resonate with people today, said Kathy Flynn, executive director of the National New Deal Preservation Assn.

"People are looking at the homeless and the economy, and saying, 'Hey, we pulled out of this once before with the New Deal and why don't we do this again?' " Flynn said.

Flynn's organization is urging state governments to celebrate New Deal art for the 75th anniversary of the creation of the New Deal in 2008. "It can be anything: It could show off buildings, it could show sewers, it could show off music. In every state, there was something that happened that really saved the day."

The post office murals offered a window onto the history and economic pillars of each locality. For example, Louisiana murals showed strapping industrial workers, bare-chested men whacking sugar cane, oil drills, cotton fields and cattle farms.

In Texas, post office murals showed singing cowboys, settlers and ranchers. In the industrial Great Lakes area, murals portrayed coal miners and factory workers wielding tools.

"They really depict the way life was," Calcote said of Louisiana's murals. "It's very agricultural, in some ways very spiritual, in other ways very industrial."

Calcote has cataloged Louisiana's 20 or so New Deal-era murals, and now the state is trying to create a website to tell people about them. She also hopes people get out and visit them.

The New Deal painting programs employed 165 artists in New Mexico alone, Flynn said. "A goodly percentage are gone. Many of them went on to become very famous, and many others withered alongside the road."

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