Friday, March 26, 2021

Art – Hidden in Plain Sight!

In America, the Great Depression began in September of 1929 and although parts of the economy had improved by 1940, the country really didn’t recover until the start of World War II.  By 1932 unemployment had reached 23.6% and it peaked at 25% in early 1933.  None of the safety nets that exist today were in place at that time…so President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Congress initiated many sweeping actions under the President’s “New Deal” Program and the Works Progress Administration.

One of the myriad of programs that was initiated involved the Procurement Division of the United States Department of the Treasury.  That Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture was funded as part of the planned construction of new post offices.  Of the funding set aside for construction, 1% was designated for artwork that met high artistic standards for public buildings.  This artwork was intended to boost the morale of the people by depicting positive subjects that the populace knew and loved.  Of course, the construction of new post offices, as well as the artistic creations, were intended to provide work for unemployed Americans…

Have you ever noticed a mural or painting in a local post office?  Many are high up on the walls and patrons just don’t see them.  Murals/paintings were commissioned through competitions open to all artists in the USA.  Almost 850 artists were chosen to paint 1,371 murals.  162 of the artists were women and 3 were African Americans.  WPA murals were created in all 48 states as well as in Alaska and Hawaii. 

A total of 22 of these works of art are still extant in Tennessee alone… What follows is a selection of murals from around the USA.

This is just one of 4 large murals and 9 lunettes on display at the US Post Office in Port Chester New York.  Domenico Mortellito created these works in 1936.  Between them they depict dock workers, mill owners, tool and die workers and the historic Life Savers Building in Port Chester.  To see 2 more of the murals as well as 2 of the lunettes, just go to,_New_York).

Domenico Mortellito was born in 1906 in Newark NJ.  He died in 1994.  Domenico operated his own studio in New York City from 1927 until 1942.  During that period he produced murals for the World’s Fair pavilions, churches, luxury liner ships and trains.  From 1942 to 1945 he worked for the military at the Pentagon in Washington DC, where he designed exhibits, supervised graphic presentations and designed booklets and brochures.  From 1945 until 1979, he worked as a director of design for the DuPont Company.

Note: A lunette is a half-moon shaped or semi-circular arch space.

You'll need to expand the this mural as well as the next 3 paintings to appreciate their full impact.  

This mural was completed for the ‘new’ post office in Dixon Tennessee.  This fresco entitled “People of the Soil” was created in 1939 by artist Edwin Boyd Johnson.  Unfortunately, the post office moved to a new building more than 20 years ago.  So at this point the old post office building with the fresco is now privately owned and most folks who’ve seen this piece of art end up taking a photo through the window.

Edwin Boyd Johnson (1904 – 1968) was an American painter, designer, muralist and photographer.  He studied fresco painting in Vienna Austria, Paris France and Alexandria Egypt.  Johnson is best known for his murals which were funded by the WPA Federal Art Project.

This second work by Edwin Johnson is entitled “Airmail” and it was on display in the Melrose Illinois Post office from 1937 until 1971.  When the post office was closed, it was renovated to become the public library and the fresco was presumed to be lost and destroyed.  In 2007 a librarian discovered the damaged fresco behind a drop ceiling.  After 6 months and a $50,000 restoration project, the fresco is now on display in the library.  Johnson also painted murals for the Tuscola Illinois Post Office and the City Hall mural in Sioux Falls South Dakota.

In Illinois alone, under this New Deal Program, the United States Post Office commissioned approximately 100 pieces of art of which over 60 are still on display in that state’s post offices…   

This eye-pleasing oil on canvas painting is simply titled “Early US Post Village”.  It was completed by Karl Oberteuffer in 1938 and it’s on display in the US Post Office in McKenzie Tennessee.  Karl was born in France in 1908 to parents’ American painter George Oberteuffer and French artist Henriette Amiard.  At the age of 10, the family moved to the United States, settling in Chicago.  After graduating from the Art Institute of Chicago, Karl became an art instructor at schools in Memphis Tennessee and later, in Boston Massachusetts.  He died in 1958.

John Oliver Sharp (1911 – 1966) painted this oil on canvas mural entitled “Summer” in 1941.  He also called this mural “Imaginary Farm”.  He was known for his floral still life paintings as well as of regional scenes.  His works frequently come up for auction at various art galleries.

While he was a student at the Art Students’ League in New York, Sharp met fellow artist Paul Crosthwaite and the two became lifelong companions.  They settled in New Hope Pennsylvania, a town which was home to many artists.  Sharp was one of the founders of the Bucks County Playhouse…and as evidenced by the mural shown above, he took part in the Federal Works Progress Administration Program.  One of John Sharp’s paintings was used as a cover for the Saturday Evening Post, a magazine I remember fondly.  

This mural entitled “Grist for the Mill” was completed in 1939 by Charles Malcolm Campbell. (1905 – 1985) It hangs in the post office in Kenedy Texas.  Charles was a quiet man who tended to make strong social statements in his paintings…some satirical and others full of fantasy and humor.  He is considered as one of the more distinctive and imaginative contemporary American painters of our time. 

Charles was a perfectionist, who is reputed to have destroyed over two-thirds of his work during his career.  He painted every day until his eyes gave out…with his stated aim to “Express my vision of the world in the purest possible terms.”  Like many artists during the Depression, Charles produced several murals under the WPA program.  When he got enough money together, he bought a beat-up automobile and bummed around the country for a year, looking at the people and the land during a very rough period of our history. 

Campbell moved back to Cleveland and produced easel paintings for the Treasury Art Project until 1942.  His early work was exhibited in traveling shows in most of the major museums across the country.  The Cleveland Museum and the Whitney Museum own examples of his work from that period.  He later moved to Los Angeles, followed by the French Quarter in New Orleans and finally to Phoenix Arizona.

This mural was completed in 1939 by Ludwig Mactarian.  It was installed in the Dardanelle Agriculture and Post Office in Dardanelle Arkansas.  Its title is “Cotton Growing, Manufacture, and Export”.  By today’s standards, it could be considered controversial but it was a product of the times.

Ludwig was born in 1908 and died in 1955.  US Army induction records list his birthplace as Syria or the Ottoman Empire.  Ethnically he was an Armenian.  He was only 13 when he immigrated to the USA.  He studied painting at the National Academy of Design and learned printmaking and lithography at the Art Students League.  Early in his career, he painted, made prints and provided illustrations for popular magazines and books.

He was paid $660 by the WPA for “Cotton Growing, Manufacture, and Export”.  That’s the equivalent to about $12,500 today.  That was a big deal when you consider that the minimum hourly wage in 1939 was 30 cents an hour and the average annual income was $1,368!  However, when he was working on this project, he was unable to afford travel to Dardanelle so he researched ideas for the mural by studying the region at the library and via telephone conversations with Dardanelle’s postmaster.

This striking painting was also painted by Ludwig Mactarian.  When WWII began, he joined the army.  While at Fort Dix New Jersey, his art work caught the attention of the War Art Advisory Committee and he was assigned to the 337th Engineer General Services Regiment, part of the US Fifth Army in Italy.  His series of Contemporary Realist paintings made in Italy in 1944/1945 drew considerable attention.  This painting, titled “Factory at Piombino” was completed in 1944.

This mural entitled “Hauling in the Net” was created between 1939 and 1940 by Michigan artist Zoltan Sepeshy in his studio at the Cranbrook Academy of Art.  This tempera mural measures 5 feet by almost 14 feet and it was installed above the entrance to the postmaster’s office at the Lincoln Park Michigan post office. 

Because the postmaster didn’t like the painting, in 1967 this big mural was removed from the post office.  A businessman across the street from the post office liked the painting and saved it from potential destruction by relocating it to an old net shed owned by the Beaver Island Historical Society.  That building was part of the Marine Museum on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan.  The businessman’s thought was that a mural honoring fishermen, in any case an odd theme in industrial Detroit, would be appreciated on the island. 

This mural was pretty much forgotten by everyone in the outside world, even the Smithsonian Institution, which tracks public art in government buildings.  They had officially declared this painting as ‘missing’. 

A former art director from Escanaba Michigan was on the island helping the executive director with display work, when she stumbled into the mural!  She knew that it was important and that it needed to be preserved.  With no humidity control at the Museum, combined with an earlier botched effort to restore it, it was in bad shape.  So the painting was removed and sent to a restoration studio.  When the restoration was completed, this big mural was returned to the Beaver Island Historical Society where it is now displayed in a new climate controlled facility.  Interestingly, the mural in the museum differs considerably from the one pictured above...

For more information about the Beaver Island Museum, just go to Beaver Island Historical Society – Making Beaver Island History Come Alive

This is yet another work by Zoltan Sepeshy.  It was completed by the artist in 1942.  This tempera on wallboard painting is entitled “Barnyard Critters” and it’s on display in the US Post Office in Nashville Illinois. 

Zoltan Sepeshy (1898 – 1974) was born in Hungary to an aristocratic family that possessed land, money and status.  Zoltan studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest and also the Academy of Fine Art in Vienna Austria, earning degrees in art and art education.  His father urged him to immigrate to the United States where he settled in Michigan, eventually working and teaching at the Cranbrook Academy of Art.  Zoltan’s works are exhibited in many private and public art collections, including at the St. Louis Art Museum in St. Louis Missouri. 

And so ends Part I of “Art – Hidden in Plain Sight”.  Part II will follow in a couple of weeks with murals/paintings from Florida, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, New York, Tennessee and Texas.

Just click on any of these murals to enlarge them…

Thanks for stopping by for a visit!

Stay Safe and Take Care, Big Daddy Dave


  1. David what amazing all these, of course I knew about depression but not about all this. Really interesting. And beauty paintings!!

  2. Thanks, Dave, for the history lesson and for showing these fantastic murals. I did know that many were commissioned but don't believe I have seen any. I know there is nothing at the Nashua Post Office.

  3. Fantastic to see so many of the murals, and learn more about the artists. These are all new to me. I really appreciate the art history!

  4. Interesting history .... we saw in the old post offices, some had been remodel for museums.

    your mural photos are beautiful....

    Have a wonderful day.