Heritage/History Visual Arts

New Deal Murals Brightened Dark Days

New Deal Murals Brightened Dark Days

Appalachian Mural Trail. Photo courtesy of the Appalachian Mural Trail.

By Lauren Stepp

Mountain people could only grit their teeth and pray when America’s Great Depression blighted the Blue Ridge. Described as a “bombshell” and “reverberating crescendo” by Beaverdam writer Wilma Dykeman, the 1930s scourged natives when tobacco prices plummeted, cotton lost its weight and the textile industry withered.

Life in Appalachia appeared hopeless until President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced the Works Progress Administration. An offshoot of his New Deal program, the WPA sought to employ the jobless, pumping money back into a parched economy. The program did that, and then some. From 1935 to 1941, the WPA put eight million laborers to work building schools, libraries, courthouses, bridges and roads. Notable projects included Fontana Dam, the 469- mile Blue Ridge Parkway and Western Carolina University’s Breese Gymnasium.

Quieter, less visible progress happened too. Moved by the revitalization of the Italian Renaissance fresco style, the Federal Art Project and the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture emerged as employment avenues for artists. Wanting to make art accessible and relatable to the “common man,” Roosevelt commissioned more than 4,000 murals, most of which were installed in post offices.

According to Doreyl Ammons Cain, these murals depict “just plain folk. There is charm in the way we mountaineers live,” she says, “a simple kindness and consideration for neighbors. The New Deal murals made the simple life seem larger than life. They brought optimism amid tragedy, representing the most democratic art ever created, painted by the people for the people.” Last year, Cain and her husband Jerry founded the Appalachian Mural Trail—an initiative that maps murals, old and new, running along the Blue Ridge Parkway. The idea was to promote tourism but also to preserve history.

“Some didn’t understand the immense value of this public storytelling art and destroyed the murals when renovating their post offices,” says Cain. Fortunately, Brevard historians moved Pietro Lazzari’s Good News to the Transylvania County Library when the old post office changed locations. With glazed tempera, the image depicts a country person receiving good news in the form of a letter. Inspired by Cubist motifs, the Italian-born Lazzari used colors like cadmium yellow and Mars violet to capture the affecting moment. “Artists of the 1930s and 1940s were smitten with Mexican muralist Diego Rivera,” says Cain. “He had an energetic, gestural style with moving figures and crowded, meaningful scenes.”

Still, Rivera’s disruptive expressionism often unnerved Appalachian communities. Even Lazzari’s commission required some polishing. Edward Rowan, assistant chief of the Section of Fine Arts, reportedly described Lazzari as an artist “in need of direction,” suggesting that his fresco could use more realism. “The old man is too much of a caricature,” he wrote.

It is hard to say what Lazzari, who had studied as a master artist at the Ornamental School of Rome, thought of Rowan’s critiques. He finished that commission and three others, earning around $750 for each. In those hard times, people took the work that came their way. “Artists had to eat, too,” says Cain.

Other historic murals still in place in WNC include ones in Canton, Forest City, Marion and Morganton. For more information on the Appalachian Mural Trail, visit muraltrail.com.

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