Bread and Roses (New Deal TRAP Murals)

I’ve been thinking that some exploration of the public works of the New Deal might be useful.  And right away, I stumbled upon a program I’d never heard of.  Under the auspices of the Treasury Department, TRAP placed murals in post offices around the country.


Mexican muralist (& “class warrior”) Diego Rivera was an important inspiration for the project.  This is one of his works from Mexico City.


He was commissioned to do a mural at Rockefeller Center, but that didn’t work out so well.  JD’s spawn objected to VI Lenin appearing in the work, and ordered it destroyed.  A smaller version was recreated in Mexico.

Cross-posted at Daily Kos

Here it is:  Man at the Crossroads

Rivera’s got works in the US, such as at a museum in Detroit and a couple of colleges in San Francisco.  But easy as it would be to fill a diary with Rivera’s work, my purpose is to look at postal murals in the US.  

The New Deal employed a lot of creative people.  I first got onto it as a photographer appreciating the words of Russell Lee, John Collier, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and their colleagues with the Farm Security Administration, charged with documenting problems and needs around the country to build support for New Deal programs.  Lewis Hine, better known for pictures exposing child labor conditions and immigrant portraits at Ellis Island did a stint documenting CCC work camps.  There were writers, too.  And agencies like the National Park Service greatly benefited from WPA projects like some of the great lodges – which first hit my radar on a visit to Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood, Oregon with its amazing carved stair posts.  Which is to say there’s more material than just one diary, and I hope to get to some others.  This time, it’s just the TRAP murals in post offices.  This from Michigan:

In addition to Rivera, there’s plenty of artistic influences to be found in these murals.  Not surprising when hundreds of artists created them.  Easy enough to find affinities to Edward Hopper, Norman Rockwell, Soviet realism, Frederic Remington’s western landscapes, and even the Sistine Chapel.


This one from Georgia even lets some hints of abstract modernism slip in.  This is a detail from a larger work:


I decided I wanted to post about this stuff because of all the talk about “bridges to nowhere” in the upcoming stimulus packages.  But a decent life has not just bread, but roses, too.  And our time’s legacy will be in our cultural production.  Though it can get tricky – sometimes Rudy “noun-verb-911” Giuliani and his ilk will intervene.  Not everyone likes all the art that’s made.  Though that kind of thing doesn’t come up all that often.


There’s portraits of a variety of notable Americans.  This being Will Rogers from Oklahoma (the guy who doesn’t belong to an organized political party because he’s a Democrat):


There’s landscapes – this of Joshua trees from the California desert:


And this pastoral from Indiana:


One of the main recurring themes is hardworking Americans from many walks of life.  This one, from Michigan, harks back to a more romantic time of taming the wilderness, because power tools for Paul Bunyan wannabes were available in the 1930s:


The territories are not forgotten, such as in this agricultural production from the Virgin Islands:


Coal mining from West Virginia:


Maple syrup being tapped in New Hampshire:


We aren’t gonna see the intense class themes like from Rivera, but this was the age of the Flint sitdown strike and the growth of the CIO, and so on.  So, it’s no accident who’s picking and who’s weighing in this one from Alabama:


Several murals in Tennessee feature TVA/REA kinds of themes, as in using taxpayer money to build up the nation’s infrastructure:


This from Indiana, kind of a visual summation of civic and social life of a generic town:


This one from Rhode Island is a bit of a mystery to me.  I’m thinking maybe it depicts a hurricane?


I’m thinking we don’t see so much snow in Missouri anymore that there’d be much use for this sort of sleigh:


There’s a lot of historical themes – this must have been quite the brawl in its day.  I imagine it could be a fun movie scene:


And some have regional or general historic themes with more imagination and narrative built in.  This one’s from Massachusetts, really a rather dark, ominous depiction for its day:


This your more general romantic view of progress on the frontier (which was pretty much a coupla generations gone by the 1930s) is from a post office in Wyoming:


In addition to murals, the TRAP program turned out various carvings, reliefs and some exterior sculptures, too.  These are from Indiana, Illinois and West Virginia:




Unleashing some creativity is a good thing, all by itself.  It’s part of the many things we need to heal our country, and our planet.  So one hopes the anti-“pork” McCain naysayers who would think of the arts as waste will not rule the day.  We need ponies, too!!!  (These from California…)



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    • LoE on January 18, 2009 at 17:23

    Got up this morning and changed my mind.  Here’s a bonus Rivera to go with:

  1. in US Courthouses and county courthouses.

    The mural in the old US Courthouse-Post Office in Jackson, Mississippi, was covered with a curtain for many years because of the obviously racial stereotypes in it. Here.

  2. This is going to be a wonderful series.  What a great way to start my day!  Again, thanks very much for this.

    • dkmich on January 18, 2009 at 20:25

    Thanks for sharing this with us.  

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