Confessions of a Depression Muralist
Frank W. Long, perhaps the most prolific artist to emerge from America’s publically funded arts program during the Great Depression, has written the only memoir of that effort from a participant’s point of view. It is compelling, revealing, and fun.
Post office murals are evidence of that program—the largest government effort to bring fine art to the grass roots. The massive New Deal-era idea was to decorate federal buildings with art appreciated by ordinary Americans, mixing genuine public works with real public interest.
Many think the murals were sponsored by the Works Progress Administration or its predecessor, the Public Works of Art Projects, but that was not the case. Most of the one thousand-plus murals created between 1935 and 1942 came from the Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts. The Section commissioned professional artists to decorate new post offices and other federal buildings with art that depicted an uplifting aspect of United States history or culture. Artists were granted up to a year to finish their assignments, but Long was a productive as well as creative artist.
Although he preferred easel paintings to mural work (and eventually became a nationally exhibited jewelry craftsman), Long created nineteen impressive murals from his hometown of Berea, Kentucky, and Crawfordsville, Indiana, to Hagerstown, Maryland, and Drumright, Oklahoma. In works such as the huge, ten-panel sequence at the Louisville, Kentucky, post office, Long’s artistic style shows an unkempt enthusiasm and effervescent optimism about his time and place. He routinely featured working men and women, women and children, families and animals, rural scenes and landscapes—all enlivened with what a critic called Long’s “joyous harmony with the universe and the subtle, nervous energy and rhythmic grace that are uniquely Frank Long’s own.”
That perspective probably contributed to Long’s unusual track record of welcome receptions and warm reactions to his work—unlike many Section artists, who occasionally ran into resistance or rejection by the government or the communities where they worked.
Long had roadblocks as well as rewards, including problems with content or control, technique or technology. One government supervisor rejected Long’s preliminary sketch for a Morehead, Kentucky, mural because the women did not fit the bureaucrat’s stereotypical notion of mountain farmwives. Yet Long persevered, compromised, and produced.
Besides being a determined and accomplished artist, Long also was a skilled public speaker, talking to civic groups about his murals. As this book shows, he is also an articulate, insightful writer. All of his murals survive—one testament to his enduring skill and output. This book is another.