FDR’s government established several agencies to give relief to unemployed artists during the Depression. The Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture (later known as The Section of Fine Arts) was established in October of 1934 to provide decoration for New Deal structures, most commonly post offices and courthouses. Art created by “The Section” is often mistaken for WPA art, since the WPA funded the construction of post office buildings.
The artists who produced murals in Alabama received the award based on work submitted for other sites, or for work done previously in Treasury programs. Twenty-four works were created in Alabama, twenty-three in post offices and one in a courthouse. The standard New Deal post office carried a decorative allotment of $650-$750, covering a space about twelve by five feet above the postmaster’s door. Courthouses could pay a commission of $3,000 and covered more extensive surfaces.
From the allotted funds the artist was required to purchase all the necessary supplies and pay the costs of installation and photographs. Payment to the artist came in three installments: when the initial sketch was approved, when a scale drawing was approved, and when the final panel was verified as in-place by the local postmaster.
Highlights from Appalachian Alabama:
Fort Payne: “Harvest at Fort Payne,” Harwood Steiger, 1938.
Steiger, of New York, admitted he had never been as far south as Fort Payne when he received the invitation to produce a mural there. Steiger did make a trip to Fort Payne within a month and found the postmaster most helpful as he prepared his sketches. The postmaster, in fact, told Steiger that he was pleased to be getting a mural although he had never heard of one before, and he drove Steiger out into the country to see waterfalls. Steiger proposed two different sketches for the mural: one showing the cotton industry in town and the other a landscape. He and the Section both chose the “pretty landscape” as more pleasing.
Huntsville: “Tennessee Valley Authority,” Xavier Gonzalez, 1937.
The Huntsville mural was the largest and most expensive panel commissioned in Alabama and the only one placed in a federal courthouse rather than a post office. Gonzales received the invitation for the panel based on designs he had submitted for a competition in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1936. He originally proposed a rather odd allegorical panel that the Washington office criticized for both its style and its lack of meaning for the people in Huntsville. Instead of making allegorical allusions it was suggested that Gonzalez place emphasis on the realities of life. Using a realistic style and basing his new theme on the work then being done by TVA in northern Alabama, he redesigned the panel several times, finishing it in October of 1937.
Scottsboro: “Alabama Agriculture,” Constance Ortmayer, 1940.
Ortmayer was teaching at Rollins College in Florida when she received the invitation to do a panel in Scottsboro. She chose a theme based on Alabama agriculture, especially cotton and corn. She described the final images: “Three phases of cotton growing form the theme of the central panel. On the right the cultivation of the crop is symbolized by the young man working with a hoe among the new plants. Opposite a young woman is depicted picking ripened bolls, and for the background, the processing and shipping of cotton is represented by the bales and the strong figure of a second young worker standing between them. Both of the flanking panels interpret the growing of corn. The young man and woman shown on the right are examining the fruit on the ripened stalks and the couple on the left are represented as workers who have harvested the new crop.”