Monday, June 13, 2011

Yet Another Reason to Like the WPA

Mural Depicts Depression Era in Coalfields

By Bill Archer
Progressive America Rising via Bluefield Daily Telegraph

BLUEFIELD, Va, June 13, 2011. — A neon light fixture in the lobby of the Bluefield, Va., post office partially obscures a Tazewell County art treasure, but the tempera mural above the postmaster’s office door represents a New Deal initiative that was aimed at restoring morale among citizens who were suffering the lingering effects of surviving the Great Depression.

In the years after the end of World War I, the U.S. economy experienced some robust growth and left evidence of that growth in cities throughout the nation. Most of the imposing structures in the heart of downtown Bluefield including the 13-story tall West Virginian Manor and the Arts and Crafts Center appeared in the mid-1920s, and steel-making coal from southern West Virginia and southwestern Virginia was in great demand as builders used steel as the framework for skyscrapers including the Empire State Building completed in 1931.

While “Black Thursday,” Oct. 24, 1029, signaled the start of the decline, the Dust Bowl drought starting in 1930 and lasting almost a decade threw the U.S. into desperate straights and by March 9, 1933, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared a “Bank Holiday” and started the process of restoring confidence in the nation’s banks, every American family had been touched in some way by the depression.

When Roosevelt launched his New Deal legislation the federal government provided a boost for the nation’s art community through the Works Public Administration/Federal Art Project, but another federal art project — the Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts — didn’t stop at placing art in galleries, museums and private collections, but made art a celebration of the spirit of community.

From 1934-’43, the Treasury Department commissioned murals, oil paintings and sculptures to be permanent attractions at post office buildings and other federal buildings that were built as part of an effort to restore national confidence administered by the Procurement Division of the Treasury Department and headed by Edward Bruce.

Southwest Virginia has incredible examples of three decorative art treasures that stand as reminders of hard times. The first was installed in the Marion, Va., post office in 1937 — a painted plaster relief titled “The Letter,” by Daniel Olney, a native of New York City who was born in 1909 and later taught in the New York Public Schools. In addition to his plaster relief in Marion that was moved to the new post office in 2000, Olney also created three reliefs for the Berryville, Ark., post office for the Section of Fine Arts, and received $750 for that work.

In 1940, William H. Calfee created two oil on canvas murals for the new post office in Tazewell, Va., that was completed in 1936. Calfee, (1909-1995) was a native of Washington, D.C., who became chair of American University’s art department from 1946 to 1954 and worked on the AU faculty for several more years, was paid $900 for the two murals.

Calfee’s “Sheep — Mother and Child — Cow” painting is located above the door to the postmaster’s office and features a pastoral scene representing Tazewell County’s rural setting. Calfee’s other painting — “Mining” — located at the other end of the lobby, features a man and older boy standing in front of a mine shaft with a railroad track in the background.

The mural above the door to the postmaster’s office in Bluefield, Va., is titled “Coal Mining,” and was painted by Richard Hay Kenah, a native of New Brighton, Pa., (1907-1982), who worked for the Section of Fine Arts in the late 1930s and early ‘40s, was in the Army Quartermaster Corps during World War II, was chief illustrator for the U.S. Geological Survey and was a noted painter, illustrator and woodworker in his native Beaver County, Pa.

Kenah also painted a tobacco auction scene for a post office in Louisburg, N.C., and a mural in Bridgeport, Ohio, just across the Ohio river from Wheeling. He attended the dedication of the Bluefield, Va., post office on May 10, 1941, and, with the help of former postmaster William Litz, installed the “tempers over oil on canvas” mural at Bluefield on July 22, 1942.

“Every time I look at it, I see something different in it,” Jerry Sluss, an employee at the Bluefield, Va., post office said. “I’ve never seen it done before, but they clean it with bread,” he added.

Kenah received $700 for his work, according to information assembled by Christopher M. Akers of Bluefield, Va.

— Contact Bill Archer at

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