Grayling Post Office houses a unique piece of American art history
by T.J. Rankin, Staff Writer for the Crawford County Avalanche
When we drive through Grayling, we can’t help but notice the incredible artwork painted on the outer walls of the town’s buildings. Artists Terry Dickinson, Tom Russell, Dean Worden, and Kim Diment, along with host of others, have contributed to the completion of some spectacular murals in Grayling. When you first see them, they catch the eye with familiar scenes depicting outdoor life in Crawford County. But there is one mural which can not be seen from the road. It decorates the lobby of the Grayling Post Office, and it is an unique part of our history. (downtown Grayling, Michigan Avenue)
Some of the best art in Michigan can be found in our post office buildings, in particular those which were constructed during the 1930s and 40s. As one of the many projects in Franklin Roosevelts New Deal, the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) was created to bring artists back into the ailing job market of the Great Depression.
Part of the PWAP program was the completion of a series of murals, which now decorate post office walls nationwide. Commissioned by the Section of Painting and Sculpture of the U.S. Treasury Department from the years 1934-1943, the murals now fall under the distinctive category of New Deal art.
Artists were being chosen through a series of anonymous competitions. The winners were commissioned and assigned to paint murals in various post offices nationwide.
Among the list of winners was Robert Lepper, who was commissioned to paint a mural at the Grayling Post Office in 1938. Lepper was also commissioned to paint a post office mural in Caldwell, Ohio, and went on to paint murals in the Mineral Industries Building at West Virginia University, and completed a sandblasted mural in the Tepper School at Carnegie Mellon University.
Like all post office mural artists of the New Deal era, Leppers work was expected to reflect the heritage of the town in which the post office was located. The murals were intended to inspire feelings of hope and pride in communities during a time wrought with hardships. Artists were known to visit communities for weeks at a time, talking with citizens and historians in an attempt to learn as much as they could about the local history and traditions that shaped the communities they intended to portray. When a plan was established it was sent to the Section of Fine Arts for approval.
Leppers finished product, The Lumbercamp, was installed in the Grayling Post Office in 1939.
The oil on canvas painting depicts a typical historical lumbercamp. Industrious lumberjacks saw through timber in the foreground, while stacks of logs, logging equipment, workhorses and a locomotive populate the background. Also in the foreground, off to the right, sits a lone Native American man, sitting on a stump with a recently caught fish, observing the whole process. He is positioned in the only area of the painting in which foliage is presented in any substantial or engaging way, in clear contrast with the felled trees and logging equipment. One wonders what he is thinking. Perhaps Lepper is commenting on the plight of the Native Americans, who simply watched as the European settlers, with their industrial way of life, disrupted and replaced the Native American way of life in the north woods.
The Section of Fine Arts program was overall a successful endeavor, but there was a significant controversy regarding the selection of out-of-state artists. Lepper himself was a Pennsylvania native. The worry was that the artist could not possibly have any real connection with the people he/she was portraying. Residents of small towns feared that artists who had never visited their subject town would use obnoxious stereotypes to depict their rural way of life. Rural towns in southern states were the most outspoken in their resentment of the artist selection process.
But the legacy of New Deal art endures. President Roosevelt wanted to boost national morale with art that was native, human, eager and alive all of it painted by their own kind in their own country, and painted about things they know and look at often and have touched and loved.
Today, we can view New Deal art and easily recognize its historical significance. The United States Postal Service is making efforts to preserve the post office murals for future generations, and when a post office relocates, postal policy requires that the murals also be relocated to the new address, ensuring that wherever the post office exists, it will keep American fine art on display for the community.
Grayling is one of only 46 post offices in Michigan where murals were commissioned. In the continental United States, a total of 1.300 murals and 300 sculptures were commissioned.