A fire became kindled in me to record the miseries and events of the times. The Depression acting as a catalyst had made the whole world about me one of torment, hunger and rebellion. Everyone seemed to be caught up in it. Painters, sculptors, poets, writers, dramatists were as one in crying out in protest. I became a recorder and interpreter of events. A part of the same misery that affected everyone" (Seymour Fogel, "Autobiographical Notes," unpublished manuscript).
Out of this chaos and confusion, the WPA (Works Progress Administration) was created by executive order under the direction of Harry Hopkins, with an appropriation of $1.39 billion. One of its stated goals was to improve morale. The WPA created jobs in virtually every sector. Architects were put to work creating new buildings, bridge builders improved the national infrastructure, the Civilian Conservation Corps helped restore such national landmarks as Fort Pulaski, writers were set to work writing guidebooks to the then forty-eight states, and artists were certainly not neglected either.
The federal government created the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) in 1933. Although this short-lived agency lasted only seven months, it was later replaced with Federal One: The Federal Art Project (FAP). The Federal Art Project was established under the WPA to create the most notable experiment of the work relief program (McElvaine 1984). Driven by economic need, resurgent democratic values, Rooseveltian paternalism, and the quest for a distinctly American culture, the second art project was launched in 1935 (McElvaine 1984).
The focus of both federal art projects embraced a broad artistic spectrum, and was not strictly directed toward what would become the quintessential expression of Depression-era art-namely, mural painting. The area of mural art itself was largely, although not exclusively, administered by the Section of Fine Art (hereafter, the Section) of the Treasury Department. The Section saw its purpose as not only to put the proverbial "starving artists" back to work, but also to use them as a means for the creation of a new American spirit, a new vision of the future, one that would transcend the broken-down shacks and dying cattle and uprooted citizenry that characterized the hardships of the present moment. As McElvaine aptly states, "They saw Federal One as a grand opportunity to fuse 'high culture' with American Democracy" (1984, 269). The Section and its operations deputy, Edward Rowan, strove for art of a classical, timeless quality that would not so much reflect the dismal reality of the times but create an American artistic renaissance in the truest sense of the word.
Such lofty goals and classical standards often came into conflict with the views and perspectives of the local citizenry in whose small rural towns such public art was to be installed. Situations such as these presented thorny problems for the Section, especially because its avowed motto was that the public was the patron of the art that was to be produced. Oftentimes, people in the local community loved a mural design that the Section thought was beneath the classical standards it had set for the art that would receive its imprimatur. More frequently, it was "high culture" that proved controversial.
Mural submissions that Rowan and fellow artists on the Section jury found to be of the highest artistic quality were, for a wide variety of reasons, sometimes disliked and even loathed by the citizens of the community the mural was intended for. Stefan Hirsch's mural for the Aiken, South Carolina, Court House had to be covered up by a drape almost immediately after its completion, partly because local people felt that the woman depicted as Justice looked like a mulatto. Citizens of Paris, Arkansas, likewise opposed the mural design of Joseph Vorst, which depicted a poor black farmer barely able to scratch out a living-a sight unwelcome to many of the people of Arkansas who already felt themselves to be the butt of northern jokes about poverty and ignorance (Marling 1982). Fletcher Martin of California created a masterpiece of a design for the Post Office of Kellogg, Idaho, but had to scrap it completely and start over when citizens objected. Kellogg is a mining town, and many townspeople felt that his depiction of a mine accident, however brilliant artistically, was a "monstrosity" and "a travesty on mining in generaquot; (Schamel and Haverkamp 1995, 57). Martin's revised work, which showed a frontiersman and a prospector, featured an ass in the prominent part of the composition directly above the Postmaster's door.
The "48 States Competition"
In 1939, Rowan launched the "48 States Competition," by far the most ambitious national art project to date. It called for murals to be created for one new post office each to be constructed in the then forty-eight states. Murals would be awarded on the basis of a national competition judged by a jury consisting of Rowan and other artists. The locales of the new post offices were not major cities, but, rather, small towns that were barely more than a speck on the state maps. Such small towns were chosen because the new post office buildings to be adorned were built, for the most part, with identical proportions and suitable in size only for small communities. The murals that would grace the walls of these new buildings would have to conform to the standard wall size available, not because such space was deemed artistically optimal but because the architectural regimentation of the post office buildings themselves dictated the dimensions of the art.
The artists who submitted mural designs were advised that they should reflect some unique aspect of local history, culture, livelihood, topography, or industry, and that, above all, they must be accurate in every detail. Artists, whenever possible, were urged to visit the communities that their murals would be placed in, not only to fully absorb the local flavor but-perhaps more importantly-to become acquainted with local sensibilities and wishes so as to avoid the controversies that seemed to sprout up almost every time a mural design was made public. Not every artist could afford to make the trip, and, as a result, what they and the Section felt was a superior piece of composition was often greeted with howls of protest by the local citizenry. The Safford, Arizona, Post Office mural certainly proved to be no exception to this.
The Genesis of the Safford Design
Seymour Fogel, a New York artist, won the competition for the Safford Post Office. In doing so, he edged out some fifty-eight other artists who had also submitted designs for Safford. Some of these submissions were of such quality that even though they did not end up on the walls of the Safford Post Office, they "migrated" to other post offices in other states, a not uncommon occurrence. Philip Von Saltza's Wild Horses By Moonlight ended up in Schuyler, Nebraska; Lew Davis's Safford design was reworked for Los Banos, California (Marling 1982); and other Safford submissions ended up on the post office walls of Yerington and New Rockford, North Dakota (Marling 1982).
Fogel, true to the Section's insistence on compositions that incorporated the unique history and culture of the area where the mural would reside, selected the theme of the American Indian. For those who lived in the East, the image of the American Indian had a decidedly different resonance from that of those who lived in the West. The image of the American Indian was perhaps best captured for Easterners who took an interest in such matters by the brilliant but decidedly romantic photographs of Edward Sheriff Curtis. Curtis had been accused by his own generation of not being an accurate recorder of contemporary Indian life. Rather, he was seen as someone who altered his photographs to capture a state of Indian purity that had already been lost forever due to the ubiquitous presence of the white man and his trade goods. Curtis resorted to air-brushing out such items as clocks from interior teepee scenes in a desperate attempt to capture a life-style that even in his day had vanished irretrievably.
Fogel, even without the Section's insistence on factual correctness, was a natural stickler for accuracy and researched his subject intensively. He made numerous pencil drawings on tracing paper of Apache religious paraphernalia depicted in Captain John Bourke's monographs in Smithsonian ethnologic publications. The details of the shield, the dance wands, the headdress, and the serape used or worn by the Apache dancers all were completely authentic.
Why the choice of subject matter? For a New York artist, unaware of the social dynamics at work in the Southwest of the late 1930s, Native Americans-and, in particular, the Apaches-seemed a logical choice to represent the unique cultural qualities of the Safford area. Native Americans were lively and picturesque subjects who seemed to lend themselves well to what would become a superb piece of artistic composition. Seymour Fogel, like Curtis, was very much a romantic and had an idealized, timeless view of the American Indian as being some sort of fixed icon: forever pure, noble, and detached from any contemporary cultural milieu.
The Apache dancers in his contest-winning design have the same quality of timelessness to them as do the equally colorful mesas that form the scenic backdrop to the dance. Native Americans, for Fogel, seemed to represent a certain vibrancy he identified with, and he was profoundly affected by their culture. Even when he was out at Safford and had the opportunity to see the dismal realities of current Native American life in the Southwest, Fogel managed to collect (on the $1,850 he received for his mural) marvelous examples of their jewelry, blankets, and pottery. The colors and motifs of American Indian design would permanently inform his later abstract art.
Fogel chose for his composition a spiritual dance of the Apache Indians misnamed the "Devil Dance." The dominant figure of the design was an imposing masked dancer with a splayed headdress. In his earliest design (Figure 1), Fogel placed this figure to the far left, creating a decided artistic imbalance. The central feature of this initial sketch was a saguaro cactus, hardly a dynamic enough motif to serve as an effective axis for the composition.
Realizing the inadequacies of this sketch, Fogel moved the masked figure to his rightful place in the center, but filled out the design with six additional figures moving limply and rather aimlessly toward the right, the direction in which the masked figure himself is moving. Scrapping this composition (which apparently had a long enough life to be gridded for possible enlargement), Fogel placed the masked dancer again at the center, but this time facing the viewer (Figure 2). He is shown kneeling on his right knee, his arms raised, his hands brandishing dance wand and rattle. To either side of this figure, the artist placed other dancers; the dancer on the left facing the viewer moves toward the right, while the dancer on the right with his back to the viewer is dancing toward the left. In variants of this theme, a third extraneous dancer is added, but this figure spoils the flow of the composition, which is a powerful circulation of two figures around the central masked one. On a more profound level, it depicts the ceaseless cycles of life around the central axis: the forever masked and unknown Author of all creation.
In the design submitted to Rowan (Figure 3), we have yet another variant. The masked figure is in place brandishing a rattle in his left hand and flanked by the subordinate dancers, although the dancer on the right is now shown frontally and moving toward the left, breaking the circular flow. A third figure is shown to the right of the central dancer and in the background, moving toward the right. The mesas in the background of all three compositions, be they preliminary or final, are pure abstraction. These angular planes of color, which in at least one of the compositions meld and blend with the angular planes of the dancers, create a decidedly cubist composition that pushes realism to its farthest frontier.
Rowan loved the design submitted to him. On the back of the photograph of the composition, he wrote in pencil, "Landscape preferred in this design. (I personally prefer both landscape and figures in this design-very handsome)." It was, in the words of Karal Ann Marling, "without question, the closest thing to outright abstraction approved by the Section to date" (Marling 1982, 223). The winning composition was placed at top row center of Life magazine's color section on the "48 States Competition," in an article titled "Mural America for Rural Americans."
But the "rural Americans" the work was intended for had a decidedly different view of the mural that was intended to grace their new post office in Safford, Arizona.
Problems soon arose that neither the artist nor the Section had anticipated (e.g., Schamel and Haverkamp 1995). Citizens of Safford, Arizona, were up in arms over the proposed mural. Fogel saw his work as a tribute to the American Indian culture of the Southwest. Rowan saw it as an exceptional work that met the highest artistic standards. Many people in Safford, however, saw only Apaches-and they hated Apaches with a vengeance. These protesters reflected the prevailing prejudice that viewed American Indians in Arizona as worthless degenerates, or-most dangerous to the Indians-members of a vanishing era. A widespread view asserted that "God knew what he was about in making the white man victorious on this continent" (Campbell 1922, 185).
This was the year 1939, and many of the local citizens of Safford could remember family members or relatives lost to Apache raids. Most lacked the objectivity to view the actions of Cochise and other Apache chiefs as possible reciprocation in kind for broken treaties, incursions into their land, and atrocities committed by white settlers. A letter from the Graham County, Arizona, Chamber of Commerce to the Section read, in part, "[This] is strictly an agricultural community which was settled by Mormon pioneers. In their early struggles so much trouble was encountered with the Indians, whose chief was Geronimo, that any thought of depicting their chief enemy in their public building is distasteful to this generation, many of whose parents were either slain or cruelly treated by the Indians" (Marling 1982, 224).
Fogel was somewhat dumbfounded. Attempts on his part to mollify the local citizens by assuring them that these were peaceful American Indians performing a nonthreatening ceremonial dance fell on deaf ears. Apaches were "the enemy," period. The furor became so intense that Rowan, against his personal wishes and artistic sensibilities, reluctantly ordered the design scrapped. In the interest of peace, Fogel was asked to bring the mural into line with the dictum that the public was the patron of the arts. Rather than merely redesigning the existing wall space, Fogel was forced to design seven vignettes that would now adorn a long wall of the Safford Post Office (which had been redesigned).
The vignette concept was somewhat atypical of Section Post Office art, which usually was intended to be placed above and around the Postmaster's door. Furthermore, whereas most murals installed under the Section's auspices were painted on canvas, which was then adhered to the post office wall by paper-hangers hired at the artist's expense, these vignettes would be painted directly on the wall. The artist, rather than painting the work in the privacy of his studio, would be forced to paint the revised designs in front of an audience that was, at least initially, not entirely friendly.
More Portraits of Apaches
Fogel begrudgingly set about redesigning the Safford murals to give protesting white citizens something they could more readily "digest." Still, no matter what he did, the "Indian menace" kept cropping up. It must be pointed out that Fogel never fully came to grips with the intense hostility toward Native Americans in the Safford community. Positive portrayals of Native American culture were considered unacceptable in murals of this kind.
Fogel began painting a series of vignettes that would portray the courage and hardships of the earliest pioneers in the Gila Valley. In one proposed panel, he depicted (at least, in an initial colored pencil sketch) two pioneer men in the desert. To the right, one of them is sleeping beneath a blanket with a roaring fire behind him. In the center, a white gouache horse (added at the last minute in front of a saguaro cactus) looks to the left, as if suddenly startled. To the left, a second pioneer man has risen from his blanket to spy in the far cleft of a mesa three white plumes of smoke. Presumably, an Indian smoke signal. The initial design, later to be reworked as the Early Pioneers panel, would eventually feature a mother with an orphan child kneeling by her very dead husband, who sports a small, bloodless arrow shaft. In the background appear the same three wisps of smoke signal. Rowan ordered the ominous smoke signal removed in order to placate the local citizens, who without the smoky signature of lurking Indians might not notice the tastefully understated arrow placed in what could be mistaken for a sleeping pioneer. As a matter of fact, this is the same sleeping figure in the initial colored sketch, minus the blanket. This panel survived, but another one would not.
Apparently determined at all costs to introduce a "real Indian" somewhere in the revised composition, Fogel selected the fourth panel of the seven to do so. He depicted an American Indian being shot to pieces by a fusillade of pioneer rifles. Early colored designs for this panel show, to the left, a line of dark pioneer figures kneeling down on their left knees (in front of burned teepees, in one version) and shooting at an Indian who sports a long feathered headdress-actually more characteristic of the Sioux and Cheyenne than the Apache. Perhaps this was an attempt to introduce someone else's Indian as being more acceptable to his local audience.
The problem with this vignette of an American Indian being shot to death was Fogel's portrayal of him in a distinctly Christ-like pose. He is kneeling on both knees, but his arms are thrown up in the manner of a crucifixion, and the dark corn plant placed directly behind him could serve as a substitute cross. This was obviously intentional, the artist attempting to get across a message to those few who might have the eyes to see. Yet Fogel altered the figure in the final composition. Now the corn plant is gone, as is the long Plains war bonnet, and the American Indian-who is clearly now an Apache-grasps a threatening hatchet in his left hand as if to provide a valid reason for his spectacular demise. Other preliminary sketches, including piled-up bodies with arrow shafts sticking out of them, destroyed corrals, and burnt forts, were scrapped. So was an enigmatic standing female figure whose robe (red in one design, green in another) does not cover her breasts, which are very much exposed.
No matter how much this panel was reworked, it still was not going to fly. In the interest of avoiding further controversy, Rowan ordered the entire panel eliminated, reducing the number of vignettes from seven to six. To this, Fogel remarked, with characteristic edged wit, "At this point our red skin brother has really become the vanishing American!" (Marling 1982, 229). It all tended to sour him somewhat. He would later refer to this period in his life as "the confused years" and remark, "The fire that the Depression had kindled in me as an artist had burnt out . . ." ("Autobiographical Notes," unpublished manuscript).
The Final History of the Gila Valley
Now thoroughly sanitized of most or all offensive material, Fogel's revised designs were ready to be painted in the Safford Post Office. The six vignettes, plus a small decoration beneath a clock, were called The History of the Gila Valley. Like much of the art reworked on orders from the Section, they represented local history, culture, and industry in the way the local community preferred to see it.
The first panel was titled Conquistadors, and depicted a kneeling fully armored conquistador grasping a sword. Behind him, a row of conquistadors with round shields and a Franciscan monk with tonsured head bowed, are shown. In the right front, a bag spilling forth gold coins is seen, perhaps a not-so-subtle comment on the blatant venality that caused whites to enter the Gila Valley in the first place.
The second panel, titled New Lands, depicted a pioneer panning for gold with his back to the viewer. To the right, a man in buckskins and coon-skin cap stands guard with rifle in front of a solidly built fort, which presumably protected the pioneers in their efforts to exploit the riches of the land.
Early Pioneers, the third panel, has already been discussed. So has the excised fourth panel. The new fourth panel was titled Migration and showed a typical scene of Conestoga wagons and pioneers with rifles and water buckets making their way westward into Indian territory. This panel is a masterpiece of complete artistic disinfection. The scene is clean, pure, and wholesome in just the way that descendants of these pioneers chose to view themselves and their history.
The fifth panel, titled simply Home, carries this theme a step further. Here we are shown the persistent and industrious pioneers now settling down in the Gila Valley. A man wearing a hat and stripped to the waist plants an axe neatly in a log. Behind him and to the left is seen a pristine church. A woman with a sunbonnet, no doubt the man's wife, is shown directly to the right with her back to the viewer. Presumably, she is too busy with the numerous chores of daily life in such a harsh environment to notice all the people in the present-day post office.
The final panel was titled Fruits of the Valley. It is a typical paean to the bounty of the land that characterized the works endorsed by the Section, whose goal was to re-create the American scene into something more in line with its own optimistic vision. Fat, healthy cattle graze on ample grass to the left, and a plow is seen in front of a plowed field to the right. If the contented cattle are any indication of the state of affairs, one can expect a bumper crop to grow from this plot of corduroy earth. At the center, a saddle and saddle-blanket hang on a section of fence. The artist recounted that one viewer from Safford thought that the saddle was real, so realistically is it portrayed and so limited was the viewer's familiarity with painting.
In the final analysis, what happened at Safford, Arizona, was what happened to so many Section murals throughout the country. Compositions selected for their superior artistry and classicism of design flew in the face of the very people for whom the murals were intended. Certainly not all of the problems could have been anticipated. But enough controversy was aroused to keep artists continually redoing compositions and Section spokesmen continually practicing damage control. In the end, it came down to a difference in vision: the vision of the federal government workers viewing the nation as a whole and the vision of local citizens with their particular cultural viewpoints and social dynamics. The artist was very much caught between these two forces and had to frequently compromise his/her own vision in an attempt to please both the particular community and the federal government whose financial control carried considerable powers of persuasion.
The success or failure of Federal One: The Federal Art Project is still a subject of debate. It certainly provided hope and work for such artists as Phil Guston, Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, Anton Refrigier, and Seymour Fogel. Toward the end of the Depression, charges of Communism were leveled at WPA artists by conservatives in Congress. "Cultural controversy, like that over social contents, centered on the murals. Post office murals (most of which were done outside the FAP jurisdiction) tended to celebrate the 'masses' and the oppressed laboring class" (McElvaine 1984, 272).
Campbell, W. S. "The Plains Indians in Literature-And in Life." The Trans-Mississippi West: Papers Read at a Conference Held at the University of Colorado, June-18-21, 1922.Fogel, Seymour. "Autobiographical Notes." Unpublished manuscript.Marling, K. A. Wall to Wall America: A Cultural History of Post Office Murals in the Great Depression. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982.McElvaine, R. The Great Depression: America 1929-1941. New York: Times Books, 1984.Schamel, Wynell, and Beth Haverkamp. "A 1939 Letter of Protest: Controversy Over Public Art During the New Deal." Social Education 59, no. 1 (1995): 55-60.
Jared A. Fogel is co-owner of Statesboro Fine Arts and Antiques, Statesboro, Georgia.
Robert L. Stevens is Associate Professor of Education at Georgia Southern University, Statesboro, Georgia.