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Walls That Speak History: Preserving Tom Lea’s WPA-Era Murals

Shatha Almutawa, November 2014

In her 10th-grade AP history classes, Trudy Lewis would ask her students to visit the Odessa, Texas, post office near their school. Tom Lea’s 1940 mural Stampede is on display there, after it had been moved from the old post office building across the street. Although the Texan artist captured the hearts of so many of America’s communities and leaders, including George W. Bush, who displayed Rio Grande (1954) in the oval office, many in Odessa had never seen Lea’s mural—it is not displayed prominently in the new post office, as it had been in the old building. In fact, by 2013 the mural was in dire need of restoration, with chipped paint and soda stains.

On September 24, 2014, a passionate call for the preservation of Tom Lea’s and other New Deal murals was sounded by the directors of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Folk Art Museum, the National Museum of American History, and the US General Services Administration’s (USGSA’s) Art in Architecture and Fine Arts Division. They all spoke at a symposium in Washington, DC, entitled The Art of Tom Lea: Preserving Our National Heritage and organized by the Tom Lea Institute.

Many murals commissioned by the WPA are or were in danger of being lost or destroyed. Randall Davey’s Will Rogers (1939), in Claremont, Oklahoma, was lost for 30 years and damaged by dirt and smoke. Tom Lea’s Nesters, commissioned for Washington, DC’s Benjamin Franklin Post Office and painted in the 1930s, is lost. Other murals from the period have been painted over or have deteriorated.

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Southwest, 1956. Oil on canvas mural, 5½ x 20 feet. El Paso Public Library, El Paso, Texas © James D. Lea.

The speakers at the symposium argued that WPA-era murals symbolize the histories of various communities in America and tell the stories of the past to young people who are not likely to learn about it in any other way. In conceiving Stampede, Lea was inspired by the song “Little Joe the Wrangler,” whose story was well-known in Odessa in the 1940s. Little Joe exemplified American values. Thus, to understand the mural is not only to understand the history of the American government and its efforts to restore the economy and promote the arts, but also to know about the people who lived in a little Texas town and for whom the story of a boy who left home to work on a ranch resonated.

Virginia Mecklenburg, chief curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, spoke of the murals as “a visual trace of citizen democracy.” When the WPA commissioned 1,400 projects, community members contributed ideas for what should be represented in their post office murals. The teachers, postmasters, and mayors who shared their visions for the murals were looking at “what had made the country great, to create a more solid society.”

The murals that resulted depicted cattle drivers, tenant farmers, dance parties, and town squares as well as scenes of agriculture and industry. In some towns, the mural artists were local, but many came from other states. Marion Gilmore, who painted Band Concerts in 1941, was asked to remove the obelisk and canon she assumed would be in the town square she painted; the town for which the mural was commissioned did not have either in its square. Jenne Magafan, an artist from Colorado who was commissioned to paint a mural for a Texas post office, painted a liquor bottle next to the guitar player in Cowboy Dance (1941)—but Texas was still a dry state. She was asked to paint over the bottle.

Adair Margo, president of the Tom Lea Institute, spoke of Lea’s art as representing and teaching about the founding cultures of Texas—Apaches, Spaniards, Mexicans, and Anglos—as well as the arrival of the first train in Texas, the history of beef cattle, and World War II, since Lea served as an accredited artist correspondent for Life magazine.

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Stampede, 1940. Oil on canvas mural, 5½ x 16 feet, Main Post Office, Odessa, Texas © James D. Lea.

Lawrence L. Reger, president of Heritage Preservation, argued that “when people learn that something needs to be done, they ask, ‘Why is it important?’ When you get people involved in doing something active, they learn. And when they learn, they appreciate. And when they appreciate, they pass it on.”

Although these murals are considered to be “regional art” and therefore often seen as simple, they are in fact complicated and powerful, argued art historian Luciano Cheles. Lea, for instance, was influenced by Italian Renaissance art, especially that of Piero della Francesca. Lea traveled to Italy with his first wife, Nancy, and borrowed from Piero’s The Resurrection. He was not the only New Deal artist to do so; artists were actively encouraged to study the Italian artists whose work was meant to be enjoyed by the public.

Tunisian novelist Sabiha Al Khemir’s speech was a poetic journey into her encounter with Tom Lea’s Southwest at the El Paso Public Library; she first saw the mural on a postcard in Paris and then traveled to Texas to see it. The feeling it elicited became the “inner landscape” of one of her characters in Blue Manuscript. “Murals are a wall that talks,” she said. “Walls speak in different ways.”

In the variety of their expressions, WPA murals speak of the edification of the public, and the belief that “everybody needs art,” in the words of Jennifer Gibson of the USGSA.

Shatha Almutawa is associate editor of Perspectives on History.


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