I arrived at Tappan Hall in Fall 2020 focused on my book project, a study of New Deal post office murals in the Dust Bowl region. However, one of the attractions of the murals and sculptures produced under the Section of Fine Arts (1934-1943) is that they are so widespread– there are over one thousand sites, from nearby Chelsea, Michigan, to Charlotte Amalie in the Virgin Islands. These murals raise so many questions and offer an (often distorted) window into their location. With the generous support of the Sandra Olson Fund for Art History and Civic Engagement, I have the opportunity to research Michigan murals alongside the sites in my book. The goal for the tentatively titled “Michigan Post Office Murals Project” is a public-facing website chronicling ten New Deal murals in lower Michigan: Alma, Blissfield, Bronson, Chelsea, Eaton Rapids, Fenton, Grand Ledge, Howell, Paw Paw, and Plymouth. These sites were chosen for their relative proximity to Ann Arbor and to illuminate mural sites outside of Detroit, the ultimate destination for mural enthusiasts. While there are many Section artworks in urban areas and Plymouth (pictured) is now a suburb of Metro Detroit, the initial goal of this project is to consider the often-overlooked New Deal artwork in rural and suburban regions, adding to the already complex and rich history of murals and public art in our state. If the project continues, the website could include over forty sites, from Detroit to the Upper Peninsula.
In my experience working with New Deal-era murals, one of the challenges is a lack of accurate information. Generalizations, like using “WPA” (Works Progress Administration) to stand in for all New Deal art, become enshrined in local history. (The Section of Fine Arts operated separately from the WPA, and commissions were assigned through a system of anonymous competitions rather than through relief funding.) Furthermore, many murals reference specific local histories or now arcane agricultural and industrial processes; without a carefully researched guide, these scenes become naturalized and/or misunderstood. For example, many Michigan murals promote a whitewashed and idealized version of agricultural labor, when conditions in the 1930s were anything but. One muralist who challenged this was Cuban-born artist (and later U-M art professor) Carlos López. As graduate researcher Madeleine Aquilina notes in her caption for López’s Plymouth mural, he atypically included a more realistic 1930s scene, and his Paw Paw mural features migrant agricultural workers. Madeleine is currently working on photographing each of the ten initial sites, an endeavor that has already yielded unexpected results, like the Plymouth mural’s current location in a grocery store!
Once launched, the Michigan Murals website will operate as an accessible source for accurate information and carefully researched analysis of New Deal art. Unfortunately, the ongoing pandemic has prevented access to the crucial Section of Fine Arts records in the National Archives in College Park, Maryland – though I’m hopeful that will change soon. Next semester, I will be teaching an upper-division seminar in the History of Art titled “Michigan Murals,” where we will place Section murals in the larger context of the state’s mural history and interested students will have the opportunity to contribute to the website. The project is gaining steam and I am grateful to all who have expressed interest. I am always happy to hear from anyone interested in New Deal murals and encourage anyone with information about any of our sites to reach out!
Carlos López, Plymouth Trail, 1938.
Westborn Market. Plymouth, Michigan.
Photograph and caption by Madeleine Aquilina
Carlos López created Plymouth Trail to adorn a new post office, designed by Wyatt O. Hendrick and Louis Simon in 1936, for the town of Plymouth. The Neo-Classical revival building served as a new home for Plymouth’s post office, which had been housed in various buildings on Main Street and Penniman Avenue since 1828. While many post office murals occupy arguably non-descript architecture, López’s artwork claims a rather distinguished setting.
Plymouth Trail is not an hagiography of the progression from the frontier to the factory. Rather, it invites the viewer to reflect upon the pitfalls of industrialization and capitalist development. The three lower panels provide a narrative that connects Plymouth’s pioneer history to the moment of the mural’s inception. In the right-most lower panel, what was once an open landscape is now marked by identical homes, smokestacks, silos and an automobile. In this frame, López depicts what one might have observed in Plymouth during the 1930s—note the unhoused family huddled by the train depot. While many post office murals in Michigan deploy allegory to celebrate the bounty of the American landscape, López’s mural creates a zone in which to critique such narratives that elide histories of racism, labor and settler-colonialism.
As you’ll note based on the photograph, the mural’s home is no longer a post office. The building has become a grocery store. Despite efforts by local activists to maintain the building’s federal function, it currently houses an upscale food market. Shoppers select plants, browse greeting cards and eat lunch all underneath López’s mural. Though it is no longer part of a government structure, Plymouth Trail’s location in a grocery store continues its complicated relationship to the category of public art. Though intended to occupy the lobbies of highly trafficked federal buildings in the 1930s, the question for Plymouth and other mural communities remains: which publics are served by these indoor murals?”