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.
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.
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.
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.
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