Murals serve as symbols of community identity

*State AP Wire

MINEOLA — The unassuming eye could easily ignore the remnants of the past, tucked away in paintings in corners of East Texas buildings.

But these paintings in Kilgore, Longview, Mineola and Rusk post offices represent Depression-era artwork commissioned by one of the federal government’s largest New Deal agencies, the Works Progress Administration.

photo by Rachel Seymour for Tyler Morning Telegraph
By assisting professional artists in finding work during the Great Depression, the agency indirectly left behind a trail of history and culture found not in European museums, but in the familiar surroundings of their communities.
“They renewed communities at a time when communities were falling apart,” said Rachel Sailor, an art historian at The University of Texas at Tyler. “I feel like those murals can enact the same kind of community that they were intended to do in the 1930s.”

While some communities protested the murals as a “controversial era of government patronage,” others celebrated with unveilings and ribbon cuttings, she said.

The mural painted for Tyler’s public library in 1934 went almost completely unnoticed, she said. But there is “still the opportunity they can” bring communities together.

“They’re poised to do the thing they were intended to do,” Dr. Sailor said.

One California artist and his family left a big impression on East Texas during the Great Depression.

In Mineola and Rusk, Bernard Zakheim, a Jewish-Polish immigrant and San Francisco artist, was commissioned to paint several post office murals as part of the Works Progress Administration.

“In the 1970s, when the post office was remodeled, somehow it was destroyed — it wasn’t here anymore; we’re not sure what happened to it,” said Lynda Rauscher, Mineola community development director.

The painting was torn down and stored in a basement, where time and the elements gradually destroyed it.

In 2004, five years before the museum opened, the board of directors started looking for someone who could recreate the original mural, “The Horse and Buggy Give Way to Modern Methods of Mail Transportation.”

Sharon Chamblee found someone in California who restored frescos: Nathan Zakheim.

The conservator happened to be the son of the original artist.

He found his father’s notes on the painting, the paints he used and the colors he mixed, Mrs. Rauscher said.

The board spent two years researching what the mural looked like.

In 2005, Zakheim, six of his children, three of his grandchildren and his sister took on a year and a half project to recreate the mural his father painted in the 1930s.

“They were so deserving of something truly nice, and they went out of their way to make us very comfortable and satisfied while we installed the mural,” Zakheim said in an email. “I often yearn to return to Mineola to see all of them once again!”

Today, the Mineola mural, now titled “New and Old Methods of Transportation,” hangs in the same place as the original painting.

“It’s just an amazing story,” Mrs. Rauscher said. “It was like it was meant to be.”

In 1938, the painting cost $710, Zakheim recreated it for half the price he charges, $49,000, which was paid for from a local grant, Mrs. Rauscher said.

When the original painting was unveiled in July 1938, after a 60day extension, the Treasury Department received letters from East Texans seeking a Zakheim mural of their own to hang in their community’s post offices.

The then-Mineola Postmaster Dallas S. Lankford wrote in a letter dated Aug. 6, 1938, that he had heard “compliment after compliment” about the mural. He said it “adds 1,000 percent to the looks of the office.”

Ray Blakeney, a present member of the museum’s board of directors, said Zakheim’s painting “told the story of Mineola in that era.”

The painting features Mineola’s L.R. Graham General Store, horses, mules, trains and airplanes all delivering mail, and what Blakeney sees as four people “resisting the change.”

The mural shows the clash of modernity and the past, he said.

The train appears to be scaring the horse and mule.

While murals in Kaufman and other cities in the state allegedly were painted over or destroyed by careless storage, Dr. Sailor said the remaining paintings are valuable beyond a dollar amount.

“They’re our cultural heritage,” she said. “They’re not Leonardo, but they’re our history.”


Published January 10
Tyler Morning Telegraph

Published by Melissa Crowe

I’m Melissa: an adventure-seeking, story-telling, internet-loving journalist. I work in Seattle. You can find my work in the Puget Sound Business Journal where I use data to tell stories about the people, businesses and industries driving Washington state’s economy.

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