I encountered a wonderful article in The Guardian in August about Justin Hamel, an El Paso photographer documenting approximately 1,400 murals created for United States Post Offices during the Great Depression, employing Americans and revitalizing the economy when unemployment was 20-30 percent.
Immediately I wanted to discover those in Mississippi. What treasures abound? Why has discussion and documentation of the trove been absent.
More than a few are not what painters would depict today — Isn’t that art history’s purpose — understanding what the oeuvre of earlier epochs conveys about previous civilizations akin to archaeologists participating in digs for insights into the past? Contextualizing art, and laughing at absurdities eagerly accepted earlier, offers erudition.
Hopefully the University Press of Mississippi will publish a folio lavishly illustrating the tantalizing patrimony.
I have seen the large mural in the old United States Courthouse and Post Office, Main Courtroom, deemed offensive. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Charles Clark had it covered with a curtain instead of obliterating it. One of his law clerks carried a rod into the courtroom and revealed the mural, sequentially. It depicts antebellum life with such cliches that decades must pass before exception is no longer taken.
An African American attorney accompanied us. Intelligent, insightful discussion ensued. No one allowed that demeaning people is acceptable.
Entitled “Pursuits of Life in Mississippi”, the mural was painted by Simka Simkhovitch, a Russian emigre, who executed four murals in the Beaufort, North Carolina Post Office and has paintings in the permanent collections at the Dallas Museum of Art, the National Museum of American Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Notable murals are “Amory, Mississippi, 1889,” in Amory’s Post Office, painted by John McCrady of Oxford — maternal uncle of the late Bishop Duncan Gray, Jr. of Jackson — and “Crossroads,” in Louisville’s Post Office, painted by Karl Wolfe of Jackson. Both artists are on any list of adept artists in Mississippi, ever.
Others include “Cotton Plantation” in Batesville, “Life on the Coast” in Bay St. Louis, “Scenic and Historic Booneville” in Booneville, “Lumbermen Rolling a Log” in Carthage, “Out of Soil” in Columbus, “Harvest” in Crystal Springs, “Erosion, Reclamation and Conservation of the Soil” in Durant, “Cotton Farm” in Eupora, “Forest Logger” in Forest, “Life in the Mississippi Cotton Belt” in Hazlehurst, “Post Near Houston, Natchez Trace, 1803” in Houston, “White Gold in the Delta” in Indianola, “Ginnin’ Cotton” in Leland, “Signing of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit” in Macon, “Cotton Harvest,” “July 4th Celebration at Sheriff Bacof’s,” and “Magnolia in 1889” in Magnolia, “Milking Time” in New Albany, “Economic Life in Newton in the Early 1940’s” in Newton, “The Richness of the Soil” in Okolona, “Legend of the Singing River” in Pascagoula, “Lumber Region of Mississippi “ in Picayune, “The Wedding of Ortez and SaOuana — Christmas 1540” in Pontotoc, “Development of the Postal Service” in Ripley, “Rural Mississippi — from Early Days to Present” in Tylertown, “Vicksburg — Its Character and Industry” in Vicksburg, and “Waynesboro Landscape” in Waynesboro.
Failure to fathom fully local cultural resources impoverishes the Magnolia State immeasurably. Mississippi must value its art, history, literature, music, and theatre.
Everyone should endeavor to view the murals remaining and public art created otherwise. Mississippians explore artistic assets when visiting Washington, Manhattan, or Chicago. Why not do so when near Waynesboro, Magnolia, or Carthage?
Jay Wiener is a Northsider.