A mural showing a stagecoach crossing a snowy, windblown Kansas landscape once graced the walls of the Olathe post office. Albert T. Reid's "The Mail Must Go Through" was created as part of a New Deal-era program that put 29 pieces of art in 26 Kansas post offices.
The story behind these pieces of art, and the conflicts arising from the democratic process that led to their creation, are the subject of "A New Deal for Public Art in the Free State," a documentary by Kansas City filmmakers Kara Heitz and Graham Carroll.
The United States Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts commissioned more than 1,600 murals and sculptures to be put in post offices across the country between 1934 and 1943.
"The federal government also recognized — Roosevelt’s administration and administrators working for him — that people needed to feel uplifted and positive," says Heitz, a lecturer of American history at the Kansas City Art Institute. "They needed images to give them hope in their daily lives."
The murals often depicted Kansas scenes such as the one in Olathe, which now hangs in the Olathe Public Library. Other murals showed agricultural scenes, such as Dorothea Tomlinson's "Wheat Center" in the Hoisington post office.
Many Kansas post offices were built during the Great Depression and are similiarly designed. The murals are often located in similar places near the postmaster sign.
"I think because they're so large and sort of old time-y looking, they might sort of fade into the background for the average person who’s just going about their business at the post office," Carroll says.
The artists anonymously submitted sketches and awaited approval before receiving their commissions and beginning work. The anonymity was part of the government's emphasis on what it described as "democratic art," Heitz says.
Some of the artists were well-known, such as Birger Sandzén, who painted "Smoky River" in Lindsborg. Other artists, such as 22-year-old Martyl Suzanne Schweig Langsdorf, who painted "Wheat Workers" in Russell, were at the start of their careers.
The anonymous competition also allowed representation for women and Native American artists. Four of the artists who created murals for Kansas post offices were women.
"They wanted to give opportunities to a lot of artists who maybe otherwise wouldn't have gotten those opportunities," Heitz says.
Staffers in the Section of Fine Arts encouraged the artists to consult with their communities to decide what the murals should depict. However, communities weren't always accepting of the artists or their plans.
In Salina, Isabel Bate and Harold Black, a married couple from New York City, were commissioned to make eight murals. But residents didn’t feel artists from New York could accurately represent their community, so they rejected the idea. Bate and Black finished the murals near the end of the program and shipped them, but they never arrived in Salina and are still missing.
Carroll says this program for public art during the Great Depression draws a parallel between today and the 1930s and '40s.
"There was a rise of demagogues and totalitarianism," Carroll says, "but there was also this really exciting sort of shining moment for democracy and for its advocates."
Kara Heitz and Graham Carroll spoke with KCUR on a recent edition of Central Standard. Listen to the conversation here.
Rylie Koester is an intern for KCUR 89.3. You can reach her at @RylieKoester.