New Deal Art: Tennessee
Media Release, March 15, 2005
by the News Bureau, Tennessee Department of Tourist Development
NEW DEAL ART: TENNESSEE TREASURES
It was a decade of bank failures, factory closings, mass unemployment and "Brother, can you spare a dime?" But out of the misery and anxiety of the Great Depression, Tennessee is left with a wealth of artistic works that capture its landscape and heritage on the cusp of massive economic and social change.
Dozens of murals, sculptures and other artistic pieces comprise the legacy of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal recovery plan for Tennessee. They are sprinkled throughout the state - some in urban areas - but most in small communities like Lexington, McKenzie, Decherd, Mount Pleasant, LaFollette and Newport.
And while they are in some of Tennessee's most public nooks and crannies - U.S. post offices and federal courthouses, for instance - they are also among the most overlooked pieces of the state's artistic history.
"These days, they just get treated like part of the furniture, and people don't bother to look at them," says Howard Hull, who wrote a book on the subject. "But they're fun and interesting and part of our heritage."
The next time you're in a small-town post office, look up. You might see a mural that caused quite a public stir in that community in the 1930s or early 1940s. Or better yet, map out a leisurely driving tour to view some of these forgotten gems. For the cost of a tank of gasoline and perhaps a few meals out, you can do some constructive loafing and find a few surprises along the way. The art is fairly easy to find, since most of these public buildings were placed along the most prominent roads of the 1930s.
"It's surprising but there's a lot of great New Deal art out there in spaces that have been pretty much forgotten now," says Jim Hoobler, curator of art and architecture for the Tennessee State Museum. "Most people today don't even know what the WPA was."
The WPA, or Works Progress Administration, was a New Deal agency created by the federal government in 1935 to provide jobs for unemployed workers - including artists. It was one of four agencies that funded various New Deal art projects. In Tennessee, one of the most active was the Treasury Department's Section of Painting and Sculpture, which commissioned most of the murals and art found in post offices and federal buildings.
Most artists had to win national competitions to earn a post office contract, usually getting about $500 for a mural. They came from throughout the nation, mostly the Northeast, but a few had Tennessee ties. John Fyfe, who painted the mural in the post office in Camden, taught art at Whitehaven High School in Memphis from 1937 to 1946.
There were no Picassos but a few were highly respected. William Zorach of New York was an accomplished woodcarver and sculptor. His two wood reliefs "Man Power" and "The Resources of Nature" now hang in the federal courthouse in Greeneville and are valued at more than $1 million.
"People like that weren't generally commissioned to do things in Tennessee," says Hoobler, "so we're very lucky we had these federal agencies supporting the arts here in that period of our history."
For much of rural Tennessee, it was the first time publicly funded art had found its way into their communities. "People today don't realize how exciting it must have been to have a well-respected artist in their town painting a mural or delivering the mural and doing a public program," says Carroll Van West, a history professor at Middle Tennessee State University and author of Tennessee's New Deal Landscape.
The art is generally representational in style - something easily recognized by most people. A cabin-raising displayed at the post office in Livingston, hunting for wild boar in Sweetwater, a tenant family picking cotton in Bolivar, building a new infrastructure for the future in Columbia.
"The general theme was to reinforce people's sense of pride and place and identity. It was about the importance of community to the people in the 1930s," says West. "The New Deal philosophy was that we should restore hope and pride to America after the Depression. The artwork that resulted reflected that Americans do, in fact, have a past and a place that we can be proud of. This isn't something imported from Europe - but art that showed local scenes and communities and culture."
Art educators advise visitors to look for the local flavor depicted in each painting. Anne Poor's "Gleason Agriculture" mural in the Gleason post office portrays the area's booming sweet potato industry in that day. It has a sweet potato vine for a border. Henry Billings' "Maury County Landscape" in Columbia shows a billowing smokestack in the midst of a rural setting, where phosphate mining used to be a major industry. Lenoir City's "Electrification" by David Stone Martin was among the most acclaimed murals and showed the impact of electrical power lines on the rural landscape of East Tennessee. It was installed in 1940 a few miles from where the Tennessee Valley Authority was constructing Fort Loudon Dam.
While more murals exist in East and Middle Tennessee, those in western counties tend to be in better condition, probably because the air is dryer in that region, according to Hull, professor emeritus of art education at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and author of Tennessee Post Office Murals. "When they were put up on the wall, they used rabbit-skin glue, which over time turns toxic. It takes about $10,000 to restore them, and a couple have been restored."
Hull visited every one of the murals as he researched his book. "My wife and I just got in the car one day and started driving. We went down to Dayton, up to Clinton, over to Jefferson City. It was just the neatest thing because we went to places we ordinarily wouldn't go," he said.
His personal favorites? "The one at Ripley made the biggest impression because the style is more modernistic," he said. "McKenzie is one of the best preserved. It is in excellent condition."
Beyond the post office and courthouse art, several other notable New Deal works can be found in Tennessee's largest cities.
In Memphis, three murals by Memphis artist Burton Callicott grace the entrance lobby of the Pink Palace Museum Mansion. They depict Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto and his men searching the Mid-South area. The boldness and colors are representative of mural art in the 1930s, known as the golden age of the muralist. Callicott, who died in 2004, taught at the Memphis College of Art.
In Nashville, celebrated New York illustrator Dean Cornwell painted two murals in the first-floor lobby of the Sevier Office Building near the state Capitol. Just down the street, four more Cornwell murals are being restored in the Davidson County Courthouse as part of a massive renovation of that building (to reopen in summer 2006). "Cornwell was a major American artist," says Susan Knowles, an independent art historian in Nashville. "Anybody who can get in those buildings would be knocked out by these works. Those by themselves are worth a trip to Nashville."
For more information on this advisory and additional Tennessee tourism news, contact: Mike Cohen, Department of Tourist Development News Bureau (865) 584-2744 (email Mike)
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article © 2005 Tennessee Department of Tourist Development
Article by Faye Smith Hoover about Whitehaven High School and her teacher, John Fyfe (pdf file)
© 2005 Nancy Lorance
All Rights Reserved.