Tuesday, March 15, 2011

South Carolina’s New Deal Murals

By: Anjuli Grantham, Graduate Assistant

African American laborers deftly pick cotton in a river of soft white, a cloudy blue sky above and peach trees in the rolling hills in the distance. A robust woman holds up her right hand, encouraging the workers, accordion player, and grandmother and child to her right, as she claws at a thief, a prisoner, and a crooked politician with her left hand. Camels carry bags of cotton along a winding road, and donkeys lead carriages laden with white bags. These are descriptions of only some of the extant New Deal era murals within South Carolina. These murals depicted the nobility of ordinary laborers and the state’s predominately agricultural economy that was a point of pride in the early 20th century.

A quick survey revealed that at least 12 murals or reliefs of the 16 commissioned in South Carolina still grace the walls of post offices, private offices and residences. Recently, the Greer Post Office, now the home of the Greer Heritage Museum, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. This Colonial Revival post office was completed in 1935. Artist Winfield Walkely created the mural “Cotton and Peach Growing” in 1941, under a commission with the Section of Fine Arts of the Department of Treasury. This mural, the first described above and pictured here, depicts what was envisioned then as an idyllic scene of rural, Southern life. The Greer Post Office joins other National Register-listed properties that contain New Deal murals. These are the U.S. Courthouse in Aiken, Bamberg Post Office with “Cotton the World Over” by Dorothea Mierisch (see below), and Clemson University’s Hardin Hall with “Meeting of the Original Directors of Clemson College” by John Carroll.

While today the murals are prized pieces of South Carolina’s social, artistic and architectural history, the creation of the murals was not always welcomed by citizens in the 1930s and 1940s. For example, Stefan Hirsch’s “Justice as Protector and Avenger” in the Charles E. Simmons, Jr. Federal Court House in Aiken was the cause of public outrage. The bold use of shape and color echoed stylistic elements of the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. The strong angles and contrasting colors led presiding Judge Frank K. Myers to derisively call it “contemporary art.” But it wasn’t just the modern appearance that made citizens upset, it was the figure of Justice herself. Some believed that she was bi-racial, which was not considered to be in keeping with the “Southern conception of art.” Even though the artist denied that the figure was bi-racial, this un-vanilla representation of Justice in Jim Crow South Carolina was enough for the judge to hang curtains over the mural. Since then, the mural has remained obscured, since it is viewed as being a courtroom distraction.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this fascinating article. I hope they can reconsider the curtains at the Aiken Federal Courthouse.