On April 10, the USPS released stamps depicting five different mid-20th-century murals in a pane of 10 in Piggott, Arkansas, home to one of these striking showcases of public art.
Dubbed “Post Office Murals” when the stamp designs were revealed late last year and again in January, a March 6 USPS Media Advisory for the issue instead ran the headline “U.S. Postal Service Honors Post Office Lobby Artwork with Stamps.” The earliest of the five works of art on the stamps, titled “Kiowas Moving Camp,” was not in fact a mural but one of 16 different “Scenes of Kiowa Life” in tempera-on-canvas panels displayed around the ground-floor post office in Anadarko, Oklahoma, part of a large three-story New Deal structure that also housed the Kiowa Indian Agency offices in 1936.
You can see all 16 panels at https://livingnewdeal.org/projects/post-office-mural-anadarko-ok/
“Kiowas Moving Camp” is one of 16 Scenes of Kiowa Life paintings completed in 1936 to decorate the post office in Anadarko, Oklahoma, in a three-story building that also housed the Kiowa Indian Agency offices. The scenes were painted by Stephen Mopope, one of the original “Kiowa Five” artists, assisted by James Auchiah and Spencer Asah.
Each stamp is inscribed “POST OFFICE MURALS / FOREVER / UNITED STATES,” with the town or city name and state abbreviation where each artwork is located to the left just below the image. Along with “Kiowas Moving Camp,” the stamps include: “Mountains and Yucca” (1937), Deming, New Mexico; “Antelope” (1939), Florence, Colorado; “Sugarloaf Mountain” (1940), Rockville, Maryland; and “Air Mail” (1941), Piggott, Arkansas. Art Director Antonio Alcalá designed the stamps.
Scheduled to participate in the first-day-of-issue ceremony at the Main Post Office in Piggot, Arkansas, were Office of the Postmaster General Senior Director Patrick Mendonca, Piggot Mayor Travis Williams and Postmaster Stephanie N. Jett, and Arkansas Parks and Recreation Foundation Chairman John Gill.
Piggott, Arkansas, where the Post Office Mural stamps were dedicated, is home to this oil-on-canvas “Airmail” mural by Dan Rhodes, for which the Treasury Department paid $700 in 1941. According to the University of Central Arkansas, “The scene eulogizes modern technology and its ability to connect rural America to the rest of the world.”
According to the Postal Service, “In the 1930s and 1940s, murals brought a touch of beauty to Post Offices across the United States. These works of art were designed to help boost the morale of Americans during the Great Depression.”
These are not the first U.S. stamps to depict government-sponsored public art of the Roosevelt era. Ten FOREVER stamps depicting Work Projects Administration posters were issued in 20-stamp booklets on March 7, 2017 (Scott 5189a).
Roosevelt-era art previously was commemorated with these 10 Work Projects Administration Poster booklet stamps released on March 7, 2017 (Scott 5189a).
Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, maintains both an informative website on U.S. Post office murals at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_post_office_murals and a comprehensive list of their locations organized by state (though not comprehensive illustrations of them) at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_post_office_murals
According to the latter, “United States post office murals were produced … from 1934 to 1943, through commissions from the Procurement Division of the United States Department of the Treasury. The principal objective was to secure artwork that met high artistic standards for public buildings, where it was accessible to all people. The murals were intended to boost the morale of the American people suffering from the effects of the Depression by depicting uplifting subjects the people knew and loved.
When ill health prevented Taos artist Andrew Drasburg from painting a mural in the heat of the new post office in Deming, New Mexico, Drasburg recommended Kenneth M. Adams, who completed “Mountains and Yucca” in 1937.
“Murals produced through the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture (1934-43) were funded as a part of the cost of the construction of new post offices, with 1% of the cost set aside for artistic enhancements. Murals were commissioned through competitions open to all artists in the United States. Almost 850 artists were commissioned to paint 1,371 murals, most of which were installed in post offices…
“The Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP, 1935-38), which provided artistic decoration for existing Federal buildings, produced a smaller number of post office murals. TRAP was established with funds from the Works Progress Administration. The Section supervised the creative output of TRAP, and selected a master artist for each project. Assistants were then chosen by the artist from the rolls of the WPA Federal Art Project.
Eight Pronghorns patiently line up for a drink in the tempera mural “Antelope,” painted by Olive Rush in 1939. Funded by the federal Treasury Section of Fine Arts, the work was installed in the lobby of the Florence, Colorado post office, built in 1936.
“Artists were asked to paint in an ‘American scene’ style, depicting ordinary citizens in a realistic manner. Abstract and modern art styles were discouraged. Artists were also encouraged to produce works that would be appropriate to the communities where they were to be located and to avoid controversial subjects. Projects were closely scrutinized by the Section for style and content, and artists were paid only after each stage in the creative process was approved.
“The Section and the Treasury Relief Art Project were overseen by Edward Bruce, who had directed the Public Works of Art Project (1933-34). They were commission-driven public work programs that employed artists to beautify American government buildings, strictly on the basis of quality. This contrasts with the work-relief mission of the Federal Art (1935-43) of the Works Progress Administration, the largest of the New Deal art projects. So great was its scope and cultural impact that the term ‘WPA’ is often mistakenly used to describe all New Deal art, including the U.S. post office murals.
The panoramic oil-on-canvas “Sugarloaf Mountain” was painted by Judson Smith in 1940 for the post office in Rockville, Maryland, which is now a police station.
“The murals are the subject of efforts by the United States Postal Service to preserve and protect them. This is particularly important and problematical as some of them have disappeared or deteriorated. Some are ensconced in buildings that are worth far less than the artwork.”
The most comprehensive, wide-ranging and well-illustrated web reference on this subject is The Living New Deal ( https://livingnewdeal.org ), which came into existence in 2007 as a project to research and present public art of the New Deal era in California but went national in 2010. It has enjoyed widespread support from academia and community residents, and documents much more than artwork alone, including many public works projects that accompanied them, in many cases including the construction of the post offices in which many murals are housed.
As stated in its press release for the stamps, “The Postal Service is committed to the upkeep of these classic paintings and has a federal preservation officer and historian to both help maintain the beauty of the murals and also educate the public about their place in postal lore. Today, many of these works have been restored and remain on display for the public to enjoy.”
A good deal less comforting is http://www.wpamurals.com/. It is full of information on such subjects as the History of the New Deal Art Projects, New Deal and WPA Artist Biographies, WPA Art Definitions and Centers, even Who’s Who in the New Deal. But the introduction includes this sobering warning: “Although many of these works of art found in post offices in Alabama to as far away as the Virgin Islands have been destroyed or stolen, those that remain must be preserved.”
Check your state’s holdings in the checklist provided at https://livingnewdeal.org/us/
Pennsylvania is fortunate, in that stewardship of these works has been taken seriously. There’s a well-illustrated 2008 pdf article about it from Pennsylvania Heritage by David Lembeck free online: Rediscovering the People’s Art: New Deal Murals in Pennsylvania’s Post Offices.
However, others states and regions have not been so fortunate. Colorado lists 27 pieces of “New Deal Art,” of which at least seven are missing and one was fortunately adopted by the artist’s family when it went off public display.
Nor does a listing, or a faded photo from the 1930s or 1940s, guarantee that the art is still on view, in place, intact or even still in existence eight decades later. Time and neglect take a steep toll on works of art, just as they so often do on everything else.
Customers have 120 days to obtain the first-day-of-issue postmark by mail. They may purchase new stamps at their local Post Office or at usps.com/shop. They must affix the stamps to envelopes of their choice, address the envelopes (to themselves or others), and place them in a larger envelope with the required postage addressed to:
FDOI — Post Office Murals Stamps
USPS Stamp Fulfillment Services
8300 NE Underground Drive, Suite 300
Kansas City, MO 64144-9900
After applying the first-day-of-issue postmark, the Postal Service will return the envelopes through the mail. There is no charge for postmarking up to 50 first day covers, but a 5¢ fee for each additional postmark over 50. All orders must be postmarked by August 10, 2019.