The Great Arkansas Post Office Tour

Tobacco Sorters  (1942-1944) ~ Thomas Hart Benton

In Arkansas and Missouri, the name is ubiquitous. Even the most casual visitor tends to notice, and occasionally asks, “Who is this ‘Benton’ character whose name keeps cropping up?” In fact, it isn’t “this Benton” but “these Bentons” for whom the states’ schools, counties, and towns are named.

The first Thomas Hart Benton (1782-1858) served five terms as senator from Missouri. A strong advocate for westward expansion, he petitioned Congress to fund a survey of the road to Santa Fe. The petition granted, Commissioners George Sibley, Benjamin Reeves, and Thomas Mather of Illinois took charge of the survey, measuring and negotiating their way across Kansas and New Mexico from 1825-1827.

Senator Benton also was the great-great-uncle of Thomas Hart Benton  (1889-1975), the painter whose own father, Maecenus Eason Benton, served in Congress from 1897-1905.

Given the history, it’s fitting that the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas should number among its holdings several paintings by the younger Benton. During a 2013 visit to the museum, I discovered the painting shown above. Tobacco Sorters  is an unexpectedly touching piece, and a fine example of Benton’s work.

During the same visit, I noticed another painting titled After the Flood, done in a style which closely resembled Benton’s. The gallery label identified it as the work of Joseph Paul Vorst, a student and friend of Benton’s who once shared a studio with him. It also noted that Vorst had been commissioned to create a mural for the Paris, Arkansas post office after winning a 1939 competition in which forty-eight artists were selected to provide murals for each of the forty-eight states.

Rural Arkansas (1940) ~ Joseph P. Vorst (Courtesy National Archives)

Vorst’s mural, a highly detailed rendering of the cattle, coal, and cotton industries around Paris titled Rural Arkansas, was followed by murals for Missouri post offices in Bethany and Vandalia. Never having seen a post office mural, I was intrigued by the concept, and curious whether they might still be around. That the murals exist at all is due to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, which included a bit of bureaucracy known as the Section of Fine Arts. Responsible for decorating public buildings, it commissioned murals for post offices built in the 1930s and 1940s, setting aside one per cent of their budgets for artistic “embellishments.”

Before the program ended, federally-funded murals had been installed in nearly 1,400 post offices across the United States. Created in the artists’ studios, they were personally installed by the artists, or by workers whom they supervised.

After discovering that nineteen of the original twenty-one Arkansas murals remained extant, I added a post office tour to my itinerary last fall. An online list of murals, combined with a nice, fresh Rand-McNally Road Atlas and a yellow highlighter, outlined the circuit for a project that I assumed would be straightforward. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective), I’d chosen the wrong list.

I began my tour in Morrilton, where I stopped at a hardware store to ask directions. Only blocks away, the post office was surprisingly new, with huge glass windows, an even larger parking lot, and gleaming tiled floors. Obviously, it wasn’t the place where Richard Sargent’s mural originally had been installed, but I assumed the mural had been moved into the new building.

As I wandered past rows of postal boxes, stamp-vending machines, and mail drops, I found no evidence of a mural. Since the line at the counter wasn’t long, I decided to ask a postal clerk about the painting’s location.

While the line inched forward, I asked the woman behind me about the mural. She never had seen it, or heard of it, for that matter, but she thought a man in front of us in line might know something, since his father had been Morrilton’s postmaster.

“We had a mural?” he said. “No kidding?” He didn’t remember it, either. “You probably ought to try the library. If it’s still around, they would know. Turn left out of the parking lot, then left again. You’ll see it.”

Just inside the library’s front door, business was slow at the information desk, and the young staff person was eager. “Can I help you?” she asked. I explained what I was looking for, and was rewarded with a blank look. “Never heard of it,” she said, “but let’s try Google.” After a few clicks of the keys, she looked at me. “How do you spell ‘mural’?

Eventually, we discovered the mural had been moved to the Conway County courthouse, and re-installed in a place of honor on the first floor. I found it easily enough, and several people stopped to chat while I was taking photos. After hearing about the complications I’d faced in the process of finding it, an administrative assistant beckoned me into her office.

“Here,” she said. “This will help. It has a list of the murals, with their current locations. Many have been moved, and most websites haven’t caught up with them yet.” In the coming days, the list would be invaluable.

The Morrilton mural itself was painted by Richard Sargent, a native of Moline, Illinois whose career spanned architecture and commercial art. Its original title,Thirsting Men, was changed to Men at Rest. Traditional methods of haying nearly have disappeared, but the sense of satisfaction is clear, and the obvious bond between the dog and his people is a delightful addition to the scene.

Men at Rest (1939) ~ Richard Sargent

Another relocated mural can be found at the Saline County Courthouse in Benton, Arkansas. Julius Woeltz, a native of San Antonio, Texas who studied at the Art Institute of Chicago before becoming head of the Art Department at Sul Ross State Teachers College in Alpine, Texas, painted Bauxite Mining as well as a pair of murals for the Elgin and Amarillo post offices.

bauxiteBauxite mining  (1942) ~ Julius Woeltz

From 1899 to the 1970s, Benton led the country in bauxite production. In Woeltz’s mural, the operations of an open-pit mine are detailed: inserting dynamite, loading raw ore into carts for delivery to the plant, and pausing for a bit of refreshment. The southwestern colors of the hills in the background are no mistake; the deep reds, grays, and yellowish-whites are typical of the ore.

bauxite2


 Ludwig Mactarian, a ten-year-old Armenian who immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1920, was raised in New York. After studies at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League, he collaborated with George Picken on murals for the Hudson Falls, New York post office, as well as working with Reginald Marsh at the New York Custom House.

In Dardanelle, Arkansas, he choose to focus on cotton, but financial difficulties made it impossible for him to travel to the area. Despite the limitations, he used images from the New York Public Library, and information gleaned from correspondence with Dardanelle’s postmaster, to create a detailed, pleasing mural.

cotton
Every aspect of cotton production was included: picking, weighing, transporting and weaving.

cotton2

And, as so often happened, the very act of photographing the mural resulted in some amusing exchanges. In Dardanelle, a group of chattering women stopped long enough to ask, “What are you taking a picture of this old place for?” When I pointed out the mural, there was silence. “My, my,” one finally said. “I’ve been coming here for years, and I don’t believe I’ve ever noticed that.”

No collection of Arkansas murals would be complete without an acknowledgement of its mountains, rivers, and wildlife. In DeQueen, a town I passed through several times, the post office is home to one of my favorite murals: Henry Simon’s Wildlife Conservation in Arkansas.

wildlifeWildlife Conservation in Arkansas  (1943) ~ Henry Simon

wildlife2Born in Plock, Poland, Simon immigrated to the United States in 1905. After studies in fresco painting with Edward Millman at the Art Institute of Chicago, he taught fresco painting at Hull House in Chicago.

wildlife3During my own time in Arkansas, I came across quail, wild turkey, squirrels, raccoons, a blue heron, a possum, and some deer. The only creatures included in the mural I didn’t see were the egret, the otter, and the fish, but I don’t doubt they were around: particularly, the fish.

Thinking about the men and women I met who’d never noticed their historic murals, I can’t be too judgmental, or too amused. It finally occurred to me that Texas surely received more than a few of those 1,400 murals, and when I looked at the full list, I was surprised to find one only twenty miles up the road. 

Installed in the old Goose Creek post office, Barse Miller’s fresco titled Texas has been moved to the Baytown Historical Museum. Its restoration in 2011, at a cost of $14,000, surely was publicized, but I don’t remember hearing a thing about it.

Of course I’ll be visiting, just as I’ll be checking that list to see what other national treasures might be hidden away in my state’s post offices: all of them much closer to home than Benton, Arkansas.

Comments always are welcome.

104 thoughts on “The Great Arkansas Post Office Tour

    1. It was the best kind of research, Becky: experience and reflection joined together. Like you, I find much to appreciate about the past, and take great joy in being able to preserve some of its best qualities in the present.

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your gracious comment.

  1. Linda, I am thoroughly intrigued with this post about murals. I giggled when I read about the encounter with the young lady asking how “do you spell Mural?” I am often astonished when I need to spell and re-spell common words to young people. Apparently they are not getting the basics in school at all.

    But on with my assessment of your mural story. I like the “Tobacco Sorters” very much and the paintings of the wildlife. I wish I could say my town has a mural but alas I don’t think so. I have a habit of scanning walls and ceilings but then I’ve only been in what was once the downtown post office, one time. I hope you soon get to visit the mural that is located in your area. Your story here is charming and of course I always like reading about your trip and the folks that you meet along the way. It satisfies my lack of travel ambition.

    1. Yvonne, you know I wanted to ask that young lady how she thought “mural” should be spelled. But I didn’t want to embarrass her, and besides: I’m the one who never can remember “one consonant, or two?”, so I have my own problems to deal with.

      I looked on the list that I linked toward the end of the post, and didn’t find anything in your town. But there are several towns on the list I don’t know, so there might be one close to you. I did spot some very close to other readers, and there are several in Louisiana, Kansas, and Iowa I’d love to see. People always are coming up with strange projects; wouldn’t it be something to see all 1,400 murals? It would be enough of an achievement to see them all in Texas.I wonder how the subject matter differs from one part of the country to another. At least that can be found online.

  2. I’m enjoying your travels. :) I was amused by the response of the lady who had never noticed the mural before–how many of us ignore what is in our own ‘backyards’. The mural are quite compelling–beautiful, rich colors and stories well told–as was yours. Thanks for the trip!

    1. It’s true, isn’t it? We too often ignore what’s right in front of our noses. It’s so easy to imagine that all the beautiful, exotic, interesting things are “out there” somewhere, when they very well may be right at hand.

      The quality of the murals I found varied, but the lighting made a big difference. The bauxite mural was beautifully hung and lit, with lots of natural light. The wildlife conservation and cotton murals were up high, near the ceiling, and not well lit at all; there weren’t even any lights directed to them. I suppose that’s part of the reason they were so little noticed, although you would think that a 12′ x 5′ painting might draw someone’s attention.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, grannysu, and thanks for mentioning Brig. Your name seemed familiar to me, but I suspect it would have taken me a while to figure out the connection. I hope you enjoyed the read. You’re always welcome here!

  3. Oh, my gosh, thanks for taking us along on your mural tour. You sure know how to enjoy the art of travel and getting to know your subject matter down to the bone.

    1. Jean, so many of my travel posts don’t show up right away precisely because I have to come home and figure out what I’ve seen. While I may have a general idea of what I want to see, the details always are more complicated and more interesting than I expect. The way I figure it, I’ll still be writing about that three-week trip in mid-summer. Or later. I’ve got eight more posts a-waiting.

    1. Those are great. Of course my favorite of the two is the one memorializing RAGBRAI. Remembering the race, and the great Des Moines Register, and Donald Kaul always is good. They’re well done, too. It would be fun to see all of them one day.

      You’re right about the pleasure to be found in the details. In these, I’m especially fond of the interaction between the men and the dog, and the possum hidden away in the hollow log.

      1. Looks like I have a blog post in the works. I’ll make a note to walk the mall someday and take pictures of the murals, just for you. :-)

    1. That doesn’t surprise me one bit. Wildlife, the outdoor life generally, and conservation all are big in Arkansas, even today. I just spent too much time trying to find a photo I fear I may have deleted, but you’d love it. In the Malvern, Arkansas library, there’s one section of wall lined with rods and reels of all sorts. You can check them out for a week — but if you’re late getting them back, it’s a dollar-a-day fine!

  4. A great post and a delight to wander through, Linda.

    Those murals give such a good idea of the history frozen in time. The zeitgeist is a word that I would use. The murals are stylized and to me present the best of American art. The figures for the most part are stilted and without any pretence.

    It shows the people so earnest, hardworking, frugal and pious.
    ‘Men at rest,’ seems different where the facial expressions are allowed to add emotion to the scene. It is the dog that must have been the reason.

    1. All of the murals are representational, since the department responsible for overseeing the project made clear that modernist art of any sort wasn’t desired. They wanted art that would be familiar to the people using the post offices, and the various scenes certainly do represent local culture. That’s part of what makes them so interesting. You can learn a good bit about life in particular areas by looking at the murals.

      Of course, many of those murals no longer represent current realities. But that’s understandable. I do wonder how many history teachers, for example, take classes on field trips to view the art. It would be a wonderful way to help kids see their part of the world as it was in a moment of time.

      I love that dog, and his people. It’s fun to see the variety of approaches taken, even in this small sample.

  5. oh I was amused and remembered your grocery store chats, and then I laughed when I read, “How do you spell ‘mural’?”

    Thank you for these wonderful images of the history of that vanishing era. I especially liked Men at Rest.

    1. That certainly was a memorable exchange with the uncertain speller. It was unbelievable, and totally believable, all at the same time. At least she was willing to ask, instead of just pretending to search.

      When I looked at the list for Mississippi, I found a couple had been damaged by hurricanes: no surprise, there. But I did laugh when I saw this entry for the one in Okolona, titled “The Richness of the Soil.” It was painted by Harold Egan in 1939, and the note on the page says, “Painted over within days of completion.” It doesn’t say whether it was the artist or an anonymous critic who painted over it, but I’ll bet you’ve had that experience yourself.

        1. Well, silly me. It never occurred to me the postmaster would have done the dirty deed to the “dirty” painting. I also assumed the multi-layered approval process would have prevented such a thing. There were several artists who redid their submissions several times to meet local standards.

          In any event, it’s a fabulous tale. There’s a firm that presently involved in restoration of several of these murals. Maybe they could do the same for Okolona. Perhaps it’s better to just let it be. Thanks ever so much for the link!

          1. La la la la la
            Ooh hey hey hey
            La la la la la
            Every year about this time the local gentry
            Have a meeting in Chickasaw land
            They all come to judge each and every entry
            That wants to try out for the Okolona band
            All the way from Kosciusko
            Up from Biloxi Shore
            All in all there’s not a half grown man
            That wouldn’t like to be
            In the Okolona River Bottom Band
            La la la la la
            Ooh hey hey hey
            La la la la la

            Oklolona River Bottom Band

            1. That’s great. Speaking of Chickasaw land, I finally have sorted out where gr-gr-grandpa was in Mississippi during the Civil War, starting with the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou, and including a stint on the Yazoo River and then Vicksburg. Who knew a piece about Arkansas murals would land me there?
              That’s part of the fun of all this.

  6. My favorite “Men at Rest.” I notice it was painted in 1939; I contrast that with my mental image of “work crew at rest” which immediately pulls up a highway crew with two men with shovels while three sit on the back of a truck with one leaning on the side. Times, how they change. The detail I like best in Men at Rest is the skill of the artist in doing men’s faces. The colors of the bauxite painting are fantastic. Thanks for my lesson of the week. I value it. Miss you when you are on the move.

    1. The details in Men at Rest are splendid, aren’t they? My suspicion is that the artist knew something about haying, and even more about the bond between people and their dogs.

      When I think of “work crew at rest,” I conjure up a shade tree with boatyard workers under it. Context is everything, I suppose. But of course we have those road crews, too, and construction workers galore. Instead of a bucket and a ladle, we have igloo coolers, but the routine is the same.

      Isn’t that bauxite beautiful? The first time I saw bauxite, it was in Louisiana. I had no idea what had coated everything red, but it was impressive.

    1. Isn’t it interesting that Taylor’s father was a postal worker? And that his parents didn’t want him to be an artist? It must have given him a certain amused satisfaction to be commissioned to paint murals for post offices.

    1. It’s not only being preserved. In some cases, it’s being restored, too. Two of the murals I’ve shown here are being restored by Norton Arts, and some other firms are involved elsewhere in the country. It’s just great.

    1. The only thing I haven’t found in any of the murals I’ve seen is — you guessed it — a cat. There surely must be a kitty in one, somewhere. I’ll have to keep looking!

  7. I have always admired the style of art found in those murals. Some of it is regionalism, some social realism, whatever it is called it finds the beauty in everyday things. I used to work third shift in a steel foundry and remember watching the sunrise splash color among all the industrial shapes and cast its light on the crews working on the pouring floor, and I thought to myself, “fool, you best keep an eye on whats out to kill you instead of watching mother nature and man create art.”

    1. Keeping an eye on what’s out to kill you is a very good idea. We tend to forget that for every cubicle-dweller clicking a keyboard, there’s someone doing dangerous work — work that we all depend on. Steel workers and dock workers. Farmers. Anyone who works with ptos, for that matter. People who climb, or fight fires, or monitor the flow through all those pipes that run through the land.

      But when we step back, it can be beautiful. I’ve always thought Sandburg was our best at doing in words what these muralists did:

      “The work of a bricklayer goes to the blue.
      The knack of a mason outlasts a moon.
      The hands of a plasterer hold a room together.
      The land of a farmer wishes him back again.
      Singers of songs and dreamers of plays
      Build a house no wind blows over.”

      1. I remember when lines of black smoke curling from a row of stacks was considered a thing of beauty and progress. Tastes change. Still, there was a raw, almost primitive aesthetic to industrial settings that the mural artists captured so well.

  8. I grew up in the town of Franklin Square, on Long Island. The post office there was bare because it was built well after the Roosevelt era, but the Franklin National Bank had imposing murals in its lobby. I see that those have been restored and are now in the town’s renovated public library. I can’t find online pictures of the murals to link to, except for one small one:

    http://www.franklinsquarepl.org/about-us/art-in-the-library/

    One theme of the murals was “The Future is Now,” and I remember the large round bank vault door depicted in one of the murals. We schoolchildren could open and keep contributing to a savings account at the bank with a deposit of as little as 5¢ at a time, collected in class. That was an early example of what people now call a public-private partnership.

    1. Like you, I have fond memories of those trips to the bank with my coins in my hand. The best part was watching the entry made in my passbook. The tellers always took just as much care as if I were depositing ten thousand dollars instead of ten cents. Reading a computer generated statement, or checking an account online, certainly isn’t as thrilling as taking out that gold-stamped passbook and looking at it between bank visits.

      We didn’t have murals in our banks; we had to settle for Roman columns out front for impressiveness. But those round vault doors beat them all. I still remember a school trip to a bank, when we were allowed into the vault, five at a time, for just a peek.

      I’m glad these murals are being restored and returned to public view. With luck, they’ll be used not only as decoration but also as a means of teaching about the past.

  9. The list. You got THE list. What a wonder. I missed the ones in AR, but have seen the Amarillo one. Didn’t know about Baytown. The fact that any remain is a wonder – probably the common man theme and wildlife helped that. (What’s a mural made me laugh – and think of the book Muriel, Muriel)

    These always remind me of the social realism style/socialist realism of the Soviet Union who wanted to glorify work and the ordinary man. So stoic.
    Remember some of those carved relief panels on some of the older buildings at the med center. Very similar style in stone – I like that a few of those are still around.

    And you got the list! Worth the trip

    1. I couldn’t include everything here, of course, but it’s interesting that some of the decorations were bas-reliefs. Two of the Arkansas post offices (Berryville and Monticello) have sculptures. In Berryville, I particularly like the crossing of the plow and guitar.

      You’re right about the resemblance of some to Soviet realism. It’s interesting that the guidelines for artists were equally strict. The murals were meant to be uplifting, reflective of local values, and so forth. There’s not a thing wrong with art-with-a-purpose, especially when competitions make their selection guidelines clear, but it’s worth pondering the relationship of art-with-a-purpose and propaganda.

      I did get the list — finally. And now that I’ve gotten smart and added the Texas list, more visits are guaranteed.

      1. Those styles were a result of not understood/”decadent” art recoil from the freedom vagueness of impressionism and “modern art”? People wanted security of images they clearly understood and didn’t have to worry they “didn’t get it” – pictures the ordinary common man could identify with? (Hmm, parallels literature at the times – will have to check that to be sure)
        If you think about it, art often has been propaganda with mandates and guidelines by patrons. Easy to trace that way way back to multiple entities in power
        I always liked the reliefs on buildings – like eat images are trying to escape the flat solid world-isa

  10. Wow. This is my kind of post — and that’s a trip that I would have loved! (It is interesting when you are photographing something and attracting a crowd that never really noticed the very thing you came to find!). There are some beautiful examples here (I especially liked the turkeys. What can I say?) I looked at the list — thanks for the link. I am pleased there is one on the MSU campus at the library and shocked that there wasn’t one in Lansing proper as a capitol city. I may have to check out a few of these myself. Chelsea is only a half hour away.

    What I find especially wonderful about all of this is that these were done — along with many other art projects in a variety of disciplines — as part of a government funded effort. Thank you, FDR! With the recent concerns about dropping from the budget of the NEA, NEH, Corporation for Public Broadcasting and so much more, it saddens me that this longtime recognition of government support of the arts is again threatened. This time I am more worried than before (and back when I was working, I was worried a lot!). Just think what the world would be without support of the arts in the way that FDR and others have?

    Very nice piece, Linda. And I love your photos. You did have a grand time on that trip!

    1. I liked those turkeys, too. I saw the biggest flock of wild turkeys I’ve ever seen on this trip, although they were in Kansas rather than Arkansas. No matter. Seeing them was great fun.

      It’s interesting that Lansing doesn’t have one of these murals. Neither does Austin. Perhaps, being metropolitan areas, they didn’t need the new post offices that received the murals. Since they were installed only in post offices that were built in the 1930s and 1940s (they weren’t meant to embellish already-constructed buildings), that probably explains it.

      I love the bas relief that’s in place at Iron River, Michigan. It shows Paul Bunyan straightening out the Round River, with Babe at his side. That’s one of the tales about him I haven’t heard; now I have something else to explore.

      I hope you get to Chelsea one day. Isn’t it strange, how the things closest to us sometimes are the most “difficult” to visit? I suppose it’s because we think, “Oh, I can do that anytime.” And then we don’t.

  11. This sounds like a labor of love, Linda — well done! I see from the full list that my little town’s post office doesn’t contain a mural (I think I’d have known if it had!); however, several of the small nearby towns do have them. And while we don’t have one at the post office, we do have several rather recent murals painted on the sides of what formerly were big old plain brick buildings. They’re quite historic and add a lot to the areas where they’re located. In fact, the guy who commissioned them has a son who went to school with Domer. Nice that somebody recognized a need for more artistic beautification in our land!!

    1. Some of the new murals I’ve seen on the sides of buildings around the country are very well done: a few are extraordinary. I always enjoy it when they reference local history, rather than just being pretty decorations. Even the ones that aren’t so well done, artistically, still are interesting and important. The one in Rolling Fork, Mississippi is one of my favorites. What’s not to like about a town that can memorialize Teddy Roosevelt’s bear hunt and Muddy Waters?

      It’s fun that you have that personal connection to your recent murals, and that you have someone willing to fund them.

      1. If memory serves me right, the arts council provided funding locally. I’m not sure if any grants were involved. Sadly, I didn’t pay enough attention at the time!!

    1. Thanks! I’m glad I found out about the murals before I left on my trip, and not after. I’m always coming home and making lists of things I missed and hope to see “next time.”

  12. What a delight to wander through all this history. I have been a great admirer of Benton for many years. I had never seen that particular opening painting. All the other paintings and murals are such a fine way to teach history. Too many people rush through a museum without taking the time to study the expressions of the people or note the lifestyle of their era. Wonderful post.

    1. I’m delighted that I could show you a painting that’s new to you. I suspect that doesn’t happen very often. I looked at the mural listings for Arizona and New Mexico, and was surprised by how few were commissioned in those states. I suppose the sparser population is the primary reason. There wasn’t a need for many new post offices.

      I was most interested in the style of the murals that were added. They’re more Frederich Remington than Georgia O’Keeffe, of course. I should have expected that, but it did make me ponder how our view of a certain area of the country can be shaped by its artists.

      As for taking time in a museum, you reminded me of a photo that was published some years ago, showing the hordes in front of the Mona Lisa with their iPhones — just snapping, not seeing. I went looking for the photo, and turned up the article from the NY Times. I think you’ll enjoy it. In fact, you could have written it.

      1. I laughed at the picture of the Mona Lisa; Looks just the way I saw it too. I have a history of disappointment when things don’t look like I picture them. The Little Mermaid, Plymouth Rock. Even the Golden Gate Bridge which I thought would be gold. but I was very young.

        Do you remember the wonderful Georgia O’Keeffe feather in the Chrystal Springs Museum? That of course was no disappointment. Benton was also famous for some humorous semi-erotic paintings involving scantily clad (or not) ladies being enjoyed by voyeuristic farmers. These murals are overwhelmingly masculine. They look as if they could handle anything.

        1. I’ve never seen Plymouth Rock, but a friend who lives near it has told me the tales of how it’s been moved, divided, etc. It calls to mind my first sight of the Great Salt Lake. It was a pretty good lake, but I didn’t think it was great, and I never changed my mind while I was living in Salt Lake City. I wonder if my view of it would be different now, since I’ve become more interested in all things nature-related. Probably so.

          I do remember the feather — and I’ve seen some of those Benton paintings now. You’re right about the humorous edge to many of them. Like all of Benton’s paintings, they reward close inspection.

  13. Linda, I must ask… How long was that trip you took? The number of stories you have already posted, and the number you say are in the que, makes me wonder how you ever covered so much ground.

    Great story, nice pictures. Just wow…

    1. It was a full three weeks, Gary: up through Missouri, across Kansas, down to the grasslands where Texas, Colorado, and Oklahoma meet, and then home through the Panhandle. I created a couple of “home bases” in Mena and Matfield Green, where I stayed for four or five days, and that kept it from being exhausting. Staying with people who asked about my interests and made recommendations about what to see really was nice, and added to the enjoyment.

      I’m glad you enjoyed this post. I found Alvin on the list of Texas towns with murals, but the note added to the listing says “stored in basement.” That raises a few questions.

  14. I have never heard about any of these painters, but I really like their style. Very characteristic for each of them, and despite some common denominators, they have quite different styles, too. A great post, once again, Linda.

    1. Thanks, Otto. They do have their individual styles, don’t they? That was part of what made finding each of them so enjoyable.

      I’m not surprised you haven’t heard of these artists. Part of the rationale of the program was giving lesser-known (or unknown) painters a chance to be selected. Proposals and sketches were submitted anonymously, so that the judgment would be made on the merits of the proposal, and not someone’s reputation. It was not only an honor for those selected, it was a way to help support artists, too, in a difficult economic time.

  15. Ooh this is my favorite kind of tour – I should see what there might be around here (of any interest – not just murals). Should do that while I’m still sort of a tourist in my hometown :)

    1. That’s right, Dana. Soon enough you’ll have your routines established, and will be going from here to there without wandering off the semi-beaten paths quite so often. And in a new town, the words of the poem from The Lord of the Rings certainly are apropos: “Not all those who wander are lost.”

  16. You come up with the best quests! I am DYING to see Crystal Bridges and have tried to work it into my north-south drives since 2013, with no success. This May I shall try again on a loop through north Texas and Arkansas. I have also become a mural fan over many years; even though I’d seen them before, I stood mouth agape in front of Diego Rivera’s works in Mexico City a few summers ago. The richness of the colors, the frequent theme of labor, and the layered compositions you show here remind me so much of the ones I saw there.

    1. I’ve only seen images of Rivera’s work. Some day, I hope to remedy that. As for Crystal Bridges, if you don’t already know, Dale Chihuly is being exhibited there, beginning on June 3. I’ve wanted to see his work in person for years, and this is my chance. Even if I only drive up, spend a couple of days, and come home, I’m going. Too bad it won’t coincide with the total eclipse on August 21, just a week after the Chihuly gallery exhibit closes.

      1. Oh, good to know! My son lives in Little Rock, so maybe I can go back (I plan to take my parents to the museum in mid-May). I am also lucky enough to have seen Chihuly’s work, and in an incredible setting – the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago, with his pieces all nestled into this huge plantscape under glass. Thanks for the info and hope you make it, too!

    1. Hi, Rachel! It’s so nice to have you stop by, and I really enjoyed that link. I’ve seen the example from San Francisco, although I had no idea who the artist was at the time, and I’ve laughed at images of “Touchdown Jesus.” I thought it was interesting that he did work for Lubbock, too. That’s now on my “to do in the Panhandle” list.

      Our banks didn’t have murals, but they had two-story high Roman columns. They were the most impressive buildings in town, apart from the courthouse and the Methodist church. Now that I think about it, that church had columns, too. They weren’t exactly magical, but they certainly conveyed a sense of stability. Isn’t it wonderful, how those memories cling?

  17. Wow, I’ve lived in Arkansas my whole life and have never seen any of these murals. Granted I’ve never sought them out, but I’m still surprised by the quality of them. Julius Woeltz’s mural looks somewhat familiar, however it could just be the art style. Henry Simon’s mural on the other hand is extraordinary in my opinion and I think I’ll go visit it next time I’m near Benton.

    Also can’t believe we’ve never been taught about Thomas Hart Benton in class. Seems like an appropriate bit of history even though I wasn’t raised in Benton. Appreciate the history lesson!

    1. Isn’t it amazing how much we can miss, that’s right under our noses? Like you, I found the Woeltz mural “familiar,” but I think it’s because of stylistic connections to the Art Deco period, which I like. If you do visit the Simon mural, look for one more animal: a stag, to the left of the fire tower in the background. I’ve read that there’s one there, but I can’t find it in my photo, unless it’s down at the bottom of the snow line. Given the placement of the mural, and the lighting, I was lucky to get the foreground fairly clear.

      I’m old enough that I grump regularly about the decline of our educational system. But, the good news is that we’re never too old to learn. That’s one of the things I love about travel — the opportunity to learn about things (like these murals) that I’ve never heard of.

      Thanks so much for stopping by. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I have a couple other Arkansas pieces posted, like this one, and I have a couple more to come. It’s somewhat amusing that one involves an Arkansas poet apparently unknown to the school system in her home town.

  18. That was interesting. I don’t believe I’ve ever been in a post office that had a mural. The local PO when I lived in the city didn’t but now that it is closed, there is a big one on one of the outside walls.

    1. Is that the old post office on Yale Street? The one with the “Love” mural? There’s so much great public art in Houston, but the Heights and Midtown seem to be taking the lead. Some of it’s a bit kitschy for my taste, but nearly all is at least colorful and energetic.

  19. “I’ve been coming here for years, and I don’t believe I’ve ever noticed that.” We all overlook amazing things that are under our noses. It happens to us all. Now you’ve got me wondering if I’ve been in a post office with a mural, but didn’t notice it. Loved the photos.

    1. It’s the truth, isn’t it? A friend and I go down to Galveston for brunch from time to time — maybe every three weeks. Every time we go, one of us is saying, “Have you seen that before? I don’t remember seeing that.” Of course, there have been many changes in Galveston post-hurricane, and those changes still are coming, but some of the things we notice we later find have been around since forever. That’s one good reason to keep right on looking — we never know what we’ll find.

    1. You do pretty well yourself, Dina. That’s why I so enjoy reading about your travels. There’s always some little unexpected tidbit that intrigues and delights. We don’t have the centuries of rich history that you do, but we do have some things worth discovering, and sharing. And you have me pegged. I do love the sleuthing.

  20. I love those old murals. There was a huge one in my hometown post office in IL. Public art back then…noble. I would love to see a Rivera.

    1. I learned something else I didn’t know about these muralists. Antonio Garcia, who painted the mural at the Presidio where I stayed in Goliad, also painted WPA murals — though not in post offices. There’s a brief article about the Chicano Mural Movement in the Handbook of Texas Online. It mentions Rivera, too.

      I wouldn’t have known about it, but an incoming link from the Texas Handbook showed up in my stats. Only after I went to the page did I realize that my photo of the chapel at the Presidio had been picked up by the Handbook. It’s on the right side of the page, attributed to “Linda Leinen Photography.” You’d better believe I laughed at that! But it’s fun — another reminder of how intricately the web itself is woven.

    1. Just out of curiosity, I checked their submission guidelines. As happens with so many magazines, they prefer previously published writers, and ask for links to three previously published articles. If I were inclined, a better bet would be to start with something like an Arkansas travel magazine, where a certain percentage of space is set aside for unpublished writers. We’ll see.

  21. Yay! You got around to writing about Benton or “The Wavy Artist”, as I’ve always thought of him. A very distinctive style that, once seen, is never forgotten.

    I got my first taste of Benton in school. I’m pretty sure one of his works was used as an illustration of the era of FDR and the New Deal.

    If I”m not mistaken, the murals seen on the walls of the NYC Supreme Court courtrooms where ‘Law and Order’ were filmed were also done under the auspices of the WPA.

    1. “The Wavy Artist” is a great way to describe his work, Gué. I wasn’t always a fan, but I hadn’t really explored his work until I moved to Kansas City in the late 1960s. He was still alive at the time, and much celebrated. When Mom moved to the area, she was still pretty spry, and we saw some of his work in places like the Truman Library in Independence.

      The Art Center in Des Moines did have some of his work. I did a search to see which pieces are in their collection, and I was surprised to find a couple of still lifes. He wasn’t all plows, mules, and haystacks.

      That’s a great bit of information about ‘Law and Order.’ I used to watch that from time to time, but I confess I was mostly interested in whodunnit.

  22. Never knew about Ark. murals though lived a few years there, much less that there were any in post offices. Interesting scenes in photos. Recall Dean Cornwelll creating mural of Canal Days in Coshocton, Ohio many years ago. Also, another fascinating colorful visual history is Millard Sheets mural Panorama of Pomona Valley here in California.

    1. Another commenter mentioned Millard Sheets. There’s such a rich artistic heritage in this country, and so much of it remains unknown from region to region, despite artists like Sheets and Benton being represented by works across the country.

      I suppose the truth is that we’re not so much blissfully ignorant as blissfully unobservant — and our sight is shaped by our expectations. We expect stamps and packing material in a post office, not art. So, it goes unseen: even by people who’ve lived with it for years.

      Dean Cornwell’s name wasn’t familiar to me, but the selection of images I skimmed certainly felt familiar. Thanks for adding him to the discussion.

  23. Mural art in public places is a wonderful thing. When Mom came to Poughkeepsie last year, we visited an exhibit about mural art at the Vassar art museum, then got ourselves over to, yup, the post office, to look at the winning murals gracing the walls. There is so much history all around us that we don’t see . . . until, that is, we go looking for it. The murals you show here are a treasure trove.

    1. I don’t remember ever reading about an exhibit of mural art. What a wonderful and creative idea. I’m sure there have been others, but murals are on my radar now in a way they haven’t been, and I’m certainly going to be more attuned to them. With the list available online, it’s easy enough to check before traveling to see if any will be around on a given trip. And, of course, now I know that a double-check on their location is good, too.

      I’ve always appreciated Annie Dillard’s reminder that “beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” The same goes for history, I’d say.

  24. I was impressed to learn that the New Deal enabled such a treasure to be produced. So many years later we are still reaping the rewards of a wise investment. Thanks for chronicling this! I was so intrigued to hear of the woman who did not know of the mural until she saw you seeing it via your camera. Isn’t that something! It just reminds me of how much we take our own backyard for granted: a lesson well learned!

    1. I’ve always known of the Civilian Conservation Corps, and their public works projects. They also were part of the New Deal. One of my favorite parks has a stone dance pavilion that was built during that time, and many of the trails through our national parks were built in the same way. But I had no idea that art projects were also promoted. It’s a wonderful legacy, to be sure.

      And, yes: I’ve laughed more than once at the thought of that woman — and the others I ran into! — who were being introduced to part of their history by a stranger. Sometime it just takes a little interest and a new pair of eyes to see things differently. If we can learn to be a little interested, and see with new eyes, who knows what wonders we might find around us?

  25. Marvelous murals and photographed so well to capture all the color and nuance of the painting.
    Your research is always a delight as well.
    Toppenish is a town in central Washington adjacent to the Yakama Indian Reservation that hosts visitors from throughout the world to see their 89 (and counting) murals on the sides of buildings all over town. It isn’t much of a town other than that–but they have a lot of spirit. When I’m up there I should do a story. I used to work at the Toppenish Review, a weekly newspaper, and got to write some good stories.

    1. Thanks for the good words on the photos. Believe me, I learned a whole lot in the process of getting those photos, too. You can tell which ones had been well-lit, and which were tucked in out-of-the-way locations with only a fluorescent tube and perhaps a window to light them up. Since I’d never photographed indoors, or with funky lighting, it was an interesting experience.

      I’ve heard of Toppenish, but I couldn’t tell you the context. Washington and Oregon are such mysteries to me, in the same way that Texas once was a mystery. I still remember flying into Houston for the first time, and looking down at huge swaths of pine trees. At the time, I’d never heard the phrase “piney woods,” and I still was certain that Texas was flat, hot, and cactus-covered. So much to learn!

      It sounds like Toppenish would be a wonderful town-for-a-tale, and you’d be just the one to do it. You not only can tell a good story, you have a connection to the place, which always adds that little something extra.

  26. Yes, you should check out whatever you can find in Texas. Your photos here are very well done – I’m sure the lighting was challenging, not to mention people watching and wondering. I knew of Thomas Hart Benton, who has such a recognizable style, but not the other painters. I knew a little about the murals, too, because I’ve seen a few, but I can’t remember where – somewhere in New York, I’m sure. I guess I’ll have to see where the nearest ones are now, and maybe the rest of your far flung readers will do the same, and you will have started a movement! Cool!

  27. Let’s just say that, by the time it all was over, I knew a good bit more about white balance. Never having tried photography under fluorescent, or dim incandescent, or overly bright interior lighting, I had some issues. But there was plenty of time for experimentation, and I took it. Glare and uneven lighting were the biggest problems, particularly with the wildlife conservation piece. But they came out well enough.

    I’m glad to have the list of post offices with murals, now. I’ll certainly be more aware of them as I travel. If others are, too, that’s a bonus. Even with some in storage or missing, 1,400 is a lot of murals. Everyone should be within striking distance of at least a few.

  28. Oooo, lovely and interesting. Now I will have to put looking for Washington State Post Office Murals on my bucket list, which is way too long….and what a lot of wonderful and famous artists were involved! I wish my mother were still alive to do a tour with me….

  29. You know, that’s one of the hardest things about no longer having my parents. My dad died over thirty years ago, and I still find myself thinking, “Oh, he would enjoy this. I wish he were here.” Likewise, with Mom. I was doing the annual spring wildflower drive last weekend, and remembered how much she always enjoyed that.

    I hope you do find some of the murals. I suspect the ones in your part of the country would be really striking, given what I’ve seen of the tribal art there, and the importance of their heritage.

  30. It sounds like so much fun to research and find these murals. There was some very nice art created through the federally-funded mural program. Thanks for including the link to the full list of post office murals. I was surprised how many post offices that I’ve been in at one time or another over the years contained murals. I can’t remember any of them. Next time I’m in a post office with a mural, I’ll have to pay attention to the art.

    1. It was fun. I had two more that I’d planned to see, but I was distracted by other things and ended up visiting just these. Now that I realize how many are in Texas, I’ll surely see some here — and perhaps even some in other places that I visit. Having that list with their current locations will be a big help. And if you do run across one, you always can go to the list to find out more information about the artist.

  31. I have a request which I know will not happen, but I’m will ask anyway. Will you do something on Canadiana? I didn’t get American history in school because we were busy learning all about Canada! I know all your readers would surely scratch their heads and wonder what is Linda doing that for? Anyhow, I love the images you used this post, so never fear, nothing is truly lost. :)
    Have a Happy (Good?) Easter :)

    1. Actually, it’s not as impossible as you might think. I do have plans to delve into a bit of Acadiana one day: particularly the expulsion of the Acadians. And some of my ancestors actually moved to Saskatchewan and engaged in a little sod-busting before they decided that living in a place where the sod already was broken was less work, and they moved back to Iowa. I have a wonderful photo of one of my mother’s cousins (named Tom) in the very early 1900s. He has a brace of birds around his neck, his gun in his hand, and his dog at his side. One of these days, I’ll get the details sorted out.

      A happy Easter to you, Tamara. I hope it’s a good one.

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