“Neither Snow Nor Rain”: Cranbrook and the New Deal Post Office Murals

In 1940, the Columbus, Kansas post office received an imposing addition: a giant slab of terra-cotta.  Mounted on the wall, the bas-relief showed mail delivery in a rural community, the sort of neighborhood where the postman drops off the mail in a field of horses.  Crafted by Waylande Gregory as part of a New Deal art project funded first through the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) and then the U.S. Treasury Section of Fine Arts, the post office mural (titled R.F.D.) represents not only an example of Gregory’s large scale sculptural installations but also a period of time when the American government invested heavily in the idea that public art installed in everyday environments could bolster the American economy and elevate the national discourse.

Waylande Gregory, R.F.D. (detail), Columbus, Kansas.  Charles Swaney/Living New Deal Project, University of California, Berkeley

Waylande Gregory, R.F.D. (detail), Columbus, Kansas. Charles Swaney/Living New Deal Project, University of California, Berkeley

Waylande Gregory's R.F.D. in a post office in Columbus, Kansas.  Charles Swaney/Living New Deal Project, University of California, Berkeley

Waylande Gregory’s R.F.D. in a post office in Columbus, Kansas. Charles Swaney/Living New Deal Project, University of California, Berkeley

Gregory wasn’t the only artist who found his work taking pride of place in post offices across the nation.  Only one year earlier, a citizen in Mason, Michigan (15 miles south of Lansing) would have encountered the mounting of a similar mural.  Also made of terra cotta, this relief was mounted above the postmaster’s office and featured an early postman dressed in buckskin and boots, negotiating his way through the wilds of Michigan to deliver his mail. Mason’s post office mural was designed by Marion Overby, one of only two women to receive New Deal post office commissions in the state of Michigan.

Marion Overby's terra cotta relief in Mason, Michigan.  1939, Cranbrook Archives.

Marion Overby’s terra cotta relief in Mason, Michigan. 1939, Cranbrook Archives.

Overby studied at Cranbrook Academy of Art under Carl Milles and eventually served as his assistant, staying in the Bloomfield Hills area from 1937 to 1941. Following Cranbrook she made her way out to California, where she was an early member of the Eames Office.  This 1943 photograph features a group of Eames Office designers nestled into the molded nose cone of an experimental glider – Marion Overby is one in from the left, standing next to Charles Eames.

Eames Office staff with plywood glider nose section. Left to right: Charles Eames, Marion Overby, Gregory Ain, Harry Bertois, Ray Eames, William Francis and Norman Bruns. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. The Work of Charles and Ray Eames. Copyright, Eames Office).

Eames Office staff with plywood glider nose section. Left to right: Charles Eames, Marion Overby, Gregory Ain, Harry Bertois, Ray Eames, William Francis and Norman Bruns. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. The Work of Charles and Ray Eames. Copyright, Eames Office).

Waylande Gregory served as the resident Ceramic Sculptor at Cranbrook from 1932 to 1933, while Marion Overby didn’t arrive at Cranbrook Academy of Art until 1937.  Yet their careers have interesting overlaps, from their stints at Cranbrook to their public commissions for the Treasury Section of Fine Arts. Gregory’s post office mural came at a high point in his career, when he was completing other monumental works such as Democracy in Action (a massive mural produced for the Washington DC police headquarters building that incisively critiques the potential for police brutality) and Fountain of the Atom (produced for the 1939 New York World’s Fair). Overby, meanwhile, was just getting started—two years later she would move out to California and become a designer under the auspices of the Eames Office. She also executed another postal relief, titled Fish Story.  Done in wood for a post office in Spearfish, South Dakota in 1943, it perhaps illustrates Overby’s transition from sculptor to designer, moving away from concerns about working a specific medium to a consideration of the overall feel and function of a piece.

Waylande Gregory, Water from Fountain of the Atom, 1938.  Cranbrook Art Museum, gift of Patricia Shaw.

Waylande Gregory, Water from Fountain of the Atom, 1938. Cranbrook Art Museum, gift of Patricia Shaw.

Cranbrook Art Museum is having a bit of a Waylande Gregory moment right now.  The museum just opened the show Waylande Gregory: Art Deco Ceramics and the Atomic Impulse, a traveling exhibition that originated at the University of Richmond Museums.  Incorporating pieces from Cranbrook’s own collection, including the figure of Water from the legendary Fountain of the Atom, the exhibition considers Gregory’s role as a vital force in the field of American ceramics.  With everything coming up Gregory right now, it is worth considering not just Gregory’s large scale installations but also the role that New Deal art projects played in establishing the careers of younger, less experience artists like Overby.  From her work for post offices to her stint at the Eames Office, where Charles and Ray were receiving U.S. Navy funding to improve their bent plywood process, Overby, like Gregory, found in federal programs a kind of patronage that supported deeply creative thought, process, and production.

Shoshana Resnikoff, Collections Fellow

4 thoughts on ““Neither Snow Nor Rain”: Cranbrook and the New Deal Post Office Murals

  1. Thank you for the great history lesson……re: cranbrook and the impact the instititutions and the artists have had throughout our country…..enjoying the topics very much!

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  2. The Post Office Murals are such an interesting federal art project, and I’m glad Shosh brought them up in this post. While researching painting for the first Archives exhibition, I became very interested in these murals myself. “Often mistaken for WPA art, they were actually executed by artists working for the Section of Fine Arts”: http://www.postalmuseum.si.edu/resources/6a2q_postalmurals.html

    “The Section” was run by the Treasury Department and its main function was to commission high quality art in the form of murals which would decorate public federal buildings and make art accessible to all people. The Section often provided artists with commissions that could jump-start their careers. The Section was the longest lasting New Deal art program running from 1934-1943.

    In addition to Overby and Gregory, there were several other Cranbrook-related artists who produced Post Office Murals. Zoltan Sepeshy produced one for Lincoln Park, MI in 1940 (see Greg Wittkopp’s blog post: http://www.cranbrookart.edu/museum/wordpress/?p=195), and one for Nashville, IL in 1942 called “Barnyard” (which, by the way, was painted here at his Cranbrook studio!)

    CAA student David Fredenthal also completed two murals for Michigan post offices – one in Caro (1941) and one in Manistique (1941).

    Sculptor Marshall Fredericks sculpted the “Horseless Carriage”, a limestone relief for River Rouge in 1939: http://catalog.marshallfredericks.com/pawtucket/index.php/Detail/Object/Show/object_id/77

    Finally, Marion Overby created a second post office mural, “The Cherry Picker,” for Traverse City (1941) which is listed on the Endangered Murals Registry at: http://sites.temple.edu/endangeredmurals/murals/michigan/mi-traversecity-overby0001-2/

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    • What a wonderful find upon googling “Carl Milles + Marion Overby”! Marion was my aunt, who assisted Milles with his Indian God of Peace here in St. Paul’s City Hall. Interestingly, the creator of The Cherry Picker was the younger sister of my mother, Cherry. My twin sister and I had kid-size plywood Eames chairs in 1950. How fascinating to see my Aunt Marion pictured in the company of the Eames brothers and other notables! I’m eager to share with my sister Rennie.

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  3. Oops– my enthusiasm generated by my initial discovery of this article prompted me to do further research on my Aunt Marion, which corrected by mistaken impression that Charles and Ray Eames were brothers, when actually they were husband and wife! All the better then, that two gifted women were integral to the work. (Incidentally, I misspelled the name of my mother Cherrie in my earlier comment. She also was a gifted artist, a teacher who left behind a large trunk of sample art lessons from an era when art instruction was normative in the public schools.)

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