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Mining, by Michael Lensen, 1942
"Mining" by Michael Lensen, 1942, Mount Hope WV
Photograph by Michael Keller

Rural Murals

New Deal Art in West Virginia

By Larry Bartlett

A tall, burly, barefoot woman created a stir in the town of Mannington, Marion County, in the waning days of the Great Depression.
The woman was a painted figure in a mural, created by Ohio artist Richard Zoellner. The federal government commissioned Zoellner to paint an inspirational mural for the Mannington post office. In Zoellner's painting, the shoeless woman stood by an idyllic farmland setting and held a hoe in her hand. She was supposed to symbolize Mannington's agricultural strength. But, when the town's well-shod citizens saw Zoellner's barefoot farm woman, they felt insulted.

Mannington, they insisted, was an oil-producing center and not a farm town. Above all, they were outraged because the woman was depicted as having no shoes. They believed that Buckeye-artist Zoellner was mocking the people of West Virginia. "Far be it from the truth that our womenfolk roam over the hills of our state in their bare feet and till the soil for our livelihood," declared members of the local American Legion chapter.

Stunned by the criticism, Zoellner designed a new postal mural that portrayed Mannington's oil industries. Residents criticized the second mural for being poorly researched and inaccurate. The town's postmaster complained that Zoellner's painting was "missing the mark widely."

Seething with frustration, Zoellner asked the postmaster for "constructive ideas." The result must have been a heartbreaker for the artist. He ended up sketching a landscape view from the postmaster's backyard, while a crowd of townfolk peered over his shoulder to make sure he got the details right. The people of Mannington approved the third mural in 1941.

Zoellner was working for the U.S. Treasury's Section of Fine Arts. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal administrators founded the Treasury's art program in 1934. The Treasury's goal was to promote a new "national art" that would unite and inspire Americans during the Great Depression. A post office lobby was the favorite site for New Deal art. There, it was sure to be seen by the average citizen.

Generally, the artworks were assigned to towns in rural or out-of-the-way places. The program's administrators believed that original artworks would give small town residents a dose of cultural uplift. Artists in the Treasury program tended to come from big Northern cities, and some of them had condescending attitudes. An artist who painted a post office mural in Bridgeport, Ohio (near Wheeling) said he hoped that his work would give the residents a spot of color "in their drab atmosphere."

But, across the nation, townfolk quickly tamed the federal government's big city artists. They often refused to accept New Deal post office art that was flavored with radical politics, intellectual smarminess, or a disrespect for local values. If most Depression-era post office art portrays landscapes and history, it isn't because the Treasury artists necessarily preferred those subjects

You can read the rest of this article in the Fall 1998 issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.

Here's a list of Post Office Art in West Virginia.