New Deal/WPA Art in Buhl, Idaho
BUHL POST OFFICE MURAL
"SNAKE RIVER FERRY"
Painted By Richard Guy Walton
Compiled from "The Buhl Herald" archives by James H. Barker
The next time you're in the Buhl post office, if you look just above the postmaster's door you'll see a mural. Have you ever wondered how it got there or what it characterizes? Surprisingly, the story goes back to "Black Friday", the stock market crash of 1929, which ushered in the great depression.
Newly elected President Franklin Roosevelt, attempting to counteract the downward financial spiral, promoted his "New Deal," a vast public works program designed not only to provide work relief but also to lift the spirits of his discouraged fellow citizens. Relying not only on jobs creation, Roosevelt unexpectedly felt that the confidence of the common people could be raised through works of art. So beginning in December 1933 the federal Public Works of Art Project began employing almost 4,000 artists, and before it was finished had commissioned more than 15,000 works of art.
To aid in the work relief portion of the New Deal, the Treasury Department increased the pace of its construction of new post offices across America, while simultaneously commissioning murals to adorn these new federal buildings. From the government perspective, "art was a necessity rather than a luxury," and "people needed paintings as well as highways."
From 1938 to 1941, various artists were selected to paint murals in Idaho beginning with the new Ada County Courthouse in 1938, followed by murals in post offices in Burley, Blackfoot, Saint Anthony, Kellogg and Preston.
Buhl was next.
In 1940 The Buhl Herald announced that Richard Guy Walton, a Reno artist, had been commissioned to paint a mural for the brand new Buhl post office. Walton had received his invitation to paint the mural from the Section of Fine Arts of the Public Building Administration after one of his paintings was awarded honorable mention in a national competition. The Buhl Herald noted that art works by Walton could be seen in the Carson Mint Museum in Nevada portraying early-days scenes from Virginia City and the Comstock Lode. In addition four pictures of his depicting the life of Tom Sawyer were on display in the Washoe County library in Reno.
To adorn the interior of the new Buhl post office, Walton had been commissioned to paint a mural portraying a scene from Buhl's early pioneer days. So in late December 1940 Walton and his wife traveled to Buhl from Reno to spend a week getting acquainted with the West End and acquiring background material for the commissioned mural. While in Buhl, Walton and his wife talked to many old-timers and were furnished stories and photographs by such pioneers as Molly Syster of Clear Lake. At the end of the week he announced that the mural should include a stagecoach since that seemed to be the most striking object in the memory of Buhl old-timers. He added that an old ferry on the Snake River should also be included in the painting.
In Reno he made several detailed studies in chalk and gouache. But to secure governmental approval, his drawings for the Buhl post office mural first had to be approved by the Section of Fine Arts, so he submitted several proposed pencil sketches. After the Section of Fine Arts identified its selection, Walton prepared a scale model of the mural in color, which was also subject to approval. Finally a cartoon of the entire process was submitted. Then he began painting the approved mural. When he got down to final details, Walton had decided that rather than erect a scaffold and paint directly on the plaster wall, he'd paint the mural on canvas in his Reno studio and later install it in Buhl. This was to avoid disrupting postal business in the post office.
On DATE 1941, the mural was finally done. Walton, accompanied by his wife, arrived in Buhl to direct the installation of his 12' by 5' mural, which depicted an early Idaho pioneer scene. He had it mounted in the lobby of the Buhl post office over the postmaster's door.
True to Walton's word, the mural showed a stagecoach with horses and passengers crossing on a Snake River ferry. What was unique to Buhl was that Molly Syster's father, Samuel F. P. Briggs, had operated the ferry shown in the mural. In the late1860's Briggs and Sam Clark began running a ferry at the Clark's grade crossing down in the Snake River canyon just north of Buhl. This was on the route used by the Overland Stage Company from northern Utah to Boise City.
The painting was done in egg tempura; a method of painting used widely before the Renaissance. Walton was paid $800 by the government for painting and installing the mural.
Article contributed by James Baker - Thanks, Jim!
© 2005 Nancy Lorance
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