Those who have used the Bassett Post Office have walked beneath a piece of American art as well as a piece of American history. A fresco covers the top of one wall, just above the wooden door into the postmaster’s office. The fresco offers a glimpse into an industry that put a little town on the maps. “Manufacture of Furniture” shows vignettes of men at work in the various stages of the production process. Three decades after artist Walter Carnelli teased the scenes out of wet plaster with his paintbrush, Bassett Furniture Industries would become the largest producer of wooden furniture in the world.
A genuine fresco in and of itself makes the work of art in the Bassett post office artwork unusual. Moreover, the mural’s existence echoes a trying yet transformative period in American history. Artworks celebrating local industry and history began appearing in post office lobbies throughout the country during the Great Depression. Bassett’s fresco mural is one of some 1,200 created between 1934 and 1943. (A number of have since been lost when post offices were “updated” or were moved into different quarters.)
The fact that these murals exist at all stems from an effort to stimulate the economy and to provide work for some of the millions of unemployed Americans during the depression. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration embarked on massive public works programs as part of his New Deal. Projects included construction of courthouses, custom houses, bridges, dams, and post offices, such as the one in Bassett, built in 1938.
When funds were available, the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the agency responsible for the design and construction of government buildings, also commissioned works of art to decorate public spaces, usually lobbies.
The vision was one in which public art would communicate civic values and would help to uplift a downtrodden populace.
After a successful pilot program, the Section of Fine Art, a special unit, was created within Treasury. The Section, as it was known, sponsored competitions among artists for commissions in large buildings. These competitions were open to all artists in the country. Runners-up were awarded commissions for smaller post offices.
In 1939, Carnelli carried out his commission to paint the fresco mural in Bassett’s post office. Carnelli, an Austrian by birth, studied in Gras, Vienna and Paris before immigrating to this country, where he became a citizen. His works included “Smelting” in the Bridgeville, Penn., post office. (That work was destroyed during a post office renovation circa 1960.) Other works by Carnelli have been exhibited in the Corcoran Museum in Washington, D.C., and in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
The works the Section commissioned from Carnelli and other artists took art to the people. In some cases, such as in some rural areas, post office murals gave some people their first encounters with an original work of art.
This is the second in a series of posts about the Garden Day 2016 sites, the history behind them and the glimpses into the future that they offer.
Rediscovering the People's Art: New Deal Murals in Pennsylvania’s Post Offices By David Lembeck
Who: Garden Study Club and The Martinsville Garden Club, hosts
Tickets: $20 per person. On tour day, buy at any site or at tour headquarters. Advance tickets at www.vagardenweek.org. Available locally March 30 – April 24 at Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce, Martinsville-Henry County Visitor’s Center, Piedmont Arts Association and the Patrick County Chamber of Commerce. Ticketholders may enter Fairy Stone State Park free on tour day.
Lunch: Historic J.D. Bassett Event Center/EMI dining room, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; $12 per person. Reservations required by April 25. Contact Eliza Severt, 276-632-2447, email@example.com, or Lynne Beeler, 276-638-1030, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Getting around: The tour will offer shuttle service. Two tour sites, the Haley house and Hamlet Vineyards, may be accessed only by shuttle. Shuttles will also go to Fairy Stone State Park. Shuttles available at Pocahontas Bassett Baptist Church, 120 Bassett Heights Road.
More info: Contact Lizz Stanley, tour chairman, 276-252-3009, or Cindy Edgerton, tour co-chairman, 276-732-2784. Reach either by email at email@example.com. For more information online, visit www.facebook.com/HistoricGardenWeekinMHC. And for more information about Historic Garden Week, this tour and others around Virginia, visit www.vagardenweek.org.