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Sebeka mural a real treasure

Every school day high school students in Sebeka have the opportunity to appreciate fine art. That is because, in 1938, service clubs in Sebeka purchased 500 gallons of paint and handed it over to artist Richard Haines.  Then Haines set about the creation of an eight and a half-foot tall by 72 foot long mural in the high school. It’s still there. Seventy-two years after Haines completed his commission, students, faculty and interested members of the public can enjoy the vast painting on a wall. “It’s a real treasure,” retired Sebeka teacher and graduate of the high school Jerry Miller said. Artists have got to eat just like other people. That seemingly obvious statement, made by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s relief administrator Harry Hopkins, had special meaning in Minnesota during the 1930s. In some places unemployment was more than 70 percent and starvation was not unheard of. As part of the solution to the devastating unemployment, programs like the WPA and CCC began putting thousands of men to work on construction projects. These projects were somewhat controversial. To keep artists fed, and to inspire and enrich Americans, the government commissioned artwork in public buildings.  Putting artists to work was very controversial. Thus Hopkins’s point about artists needing nourishment. Even though they were controversial, the public art projects moved forward. Post offices were logical places to put the art. “By providing decoration in public buildings, the art was made accessible to all people,” Patricia Raynor wrote in 1997 in the postal history magazine EnRoute. “Post offices were located in virtually every community and available for viewing by all postal patrons—which made post office murals a truly democratic art form.” The murals, often preceded by new post office buildings, began to spring up across the country. Minnesota was no exception. The web site lists twenty-six Minnesota post offices that have, or have had, murals. Many of them, such as Lucia Wiley’s “Indians Gathering Wild Rice”, painted in the Long Prairie post office in 1939, and Richard Jansen’s “Threshing Wheat, painted in Sauk Centre in 1942, are still available for public viewing and enjoyment. Richard Haines was part of that army of Great Depression Era artists who were put to work by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture between 1934 and the mid-40s. Haines was an Iowa farm boy. His talent for art led him first to the Minneapolis calendar company Brown and Bigelow. Later he studied art at the Minneapolis School of Art, as did some of the other artists who became post office muralists. But post offices weren’t the only public places that received murals.  In addition to the Sebeka High School lists the Shakopee High School Library and the Milaca City Hall as being graced by murals. Schools and city halls are also democratic in their audiences. Although the website is not entirely accurate, it is likely the Shakopee mural still exists. In 2005 it was reported to be in a building called the Central Family Center located at 505 South Holmes Street in Shakopee. Murals were also apparently painted in the Rochester Junior High School and the Faribault School for The Deaf. The subject matter and scope of the Shakopee school mural, painted by Harmon Arndt and three assistants, is somewhat similar to that of Haines’s mural in Sebeka. Both of them portray the forward movement of history. Arndt, with direction from community leaders, painted an unfolding panorama of the founding and development of Shakopee. He begins with a panel depicting missionary Samuel Pond proselytizing a group of Dakota Indians. Pastor Pond was one of the earliest European-Americans in the area of Shakopee, according to Ms. Gertrude Roepke, who has written a brief history and description of the mural called “A Mural Tells the Story of Shakopee from 1842 to 1940”. The mural is true to Ms. Roepke’s title. Arndt takes the viewer from the early days of the founding of the community to colorful street scenes of the late 1930s. On the numerous panels of the mural are many identifiable people from the history of Shakopee. Haines starts his Sebeka High School mural at a different point in history. At its beginning are two somewhat primitive Native Americans that seem to be stalking prey and, at the same time, are being stalked by a wild bear-like-beast. This panel sets the tone for the entire Haines mural. The Native Americans are muscular and energetic. There is a potential for violence in both the humans and their environment. The human and animal subjects seem barely contained by the paint and the one-dimensional wall. They are alive and in action and potentially explosive. The power and violence in Haines’s work is starkly evident in a struggle between a soldier and an Indian warrior. The soldier, on a bucking white stallion, strikes a rock-like fist to the warrior’s chin as he grapples for the soldier’s pistol. In another scene muscular loggers and horses struggle with projectile-like logs racing down a river. It seems they are almost in a losing battle and soon the logs will crash off the wall and crush the viewers. Even Haines’s priest is standing and in action while, in Shakopee, the priest is passively seated in the middle of a circle of school children-like Indians. The Shakopee mural, with its colorful street scenes, is tame. Perhaps Arndt was influenced by the French painters of a few decades before him. Haines’s mural isn’t as colorful. It’s darker but wild. Perhaps it is more 20th century; more American. All of the Depression Era muralists were likely influenced by the Mexican muralists Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros, who struggled mightily to escape the European influence on art. But the Mexican influence had more to do with style than on the content of the American post office and school murals. “Although the mural program was inspired by a Mexican mural tradition strongly affected by social change, the hard realities of American life are not illustrated on post office walls,” Patricia Raynor, the postal historian, wrote in her 1997 article. “Scenes of industrial America, for instance, avoid tragic portrayals of industrial accidents. Social realism painting, though popular at the time, was discouraged. Therefore, the very real scenes of jobless Americans standing in bread lines are not to be found on post office walls.” Artists had to work with government officials and community leaders to get the designs for their murals approved. As a result, controversial topics were avoided. Lucia Wiley, who did the mural in the Long Prairie post office, had her proposal for a Wisconsin post office turned down. The postmaster found it offensive. Perhaps he was right. Communities had to live with these murals long after the artists were gone.    But what the artists did leave behind, thanks to the vision of government officials that understood that artists needed to eat, is a vast national art museum spread across the nation and available to all.

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