BENTON -- The Saline County Courthouse is a government building, not a museum. But it does house one vivid piece of art that brings to life local history.
The mural, titled Bauxite Mining, is one of 19 surviving works that was created for U.S. post offices in the state between 1938 and 1942. The murals were completed as part of a New Deal program devised by President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration during the Great Depression. In all, federally funded art was installed in nearly 1,400 post offices around the country.
Seventeen of the Arkansas works are paintings, the other two are sculptural bas-reliefs. Another mural was destroyed in a fire. A dozen are on display in post offices, while the rest have been moved to other public buildings such as the courthouse in Benton.
As The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture explains, "During a time of economic crisis and with the specter of World War II on the horizon, images of strong workers, productive farmers and determined pioneers were intended to reassure and motivate workers."
Administered by the U.S. Treasury Departments' Section of Fine Arts, this was the nation's first comprehensive public art program, "using the post office as a democratic art gallery." In Arkansas, "the art was displayed in smaller communities that were part of rural America back then. The post office was selected for the site of public art because, at the time, it was the center of activity in every community."
Texas artist Julius Woeltz was paid $750 to create the Benton mural, according to a University of Central Arkansas Internet posting. He chose the theme of bauxite mining because it was then a major Saline County industry. The UCA account notes that Woeltz "completed his final cartoon for the mural just four days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Since bauxite is the raw material used to make aluminum for the production of aircraft, the subject matter was quite timely."
The mural, 6 by 12 feet in size, is richly colored. It shows the operations of an open-pit mine with three aspects of the labor: drilling holes for dynamite to loosen the ore, loading bauxite onto carts and a worker pausing to get a drink of water during the hard work.
Only two of the state's post-office images were done by Arkansas residents. H. Louis Freund, then at Hendrix College, painted pioneer life for the Heber Springs post office. Depicting a frontier couple and baby along with two oxen, his From Timber to Agriculture hangs in Cleburne County Historical Center. Malvern native Natalie Henry portrayed vineyards, orchards and chicken husbandry for the Springdale post office. Her Local Industries painting can be seen at the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History.
The post-office art and other similar federal programs are credited by the UCA posting as "changing the relationship between art and society. Art's elitist sphere was democratized. The New Deal essentially bridged the gap between art and society by stitching a new democratic being out of the two separate worlds, all the while literally saving a generation of artists who would have been lost to the struggles of the Depression."
Given the abundance of public art in the 21st century, it's easy to overlook how innovative the post-office murals were in their day -- and how much pleasure they have given to the general public in the eight decades since.
The Bauxite Mining mural can be viewed during business hours Monday through Friday in the Saline County Courthouse, 200 N. Main St., Benton. Information on other post office art in Arkansas is available at encyclopediaofarkansas.net. and uca.edu/postofficemurals.
Style on 05/28/2019
Print Headline: Innovative mural survives in Benton