RUSK – Passersby purchasing stamps and mailing parcels discretely step around a rickety ladder blocking the front window to the post office in Rusk.
Postmaster Ron Williams nervously holds the ladder steady and says, “I don’t have the authority to let you be doing this.”
From the top step, brandishing a rag soaked in lacquer thinner, Nathan Zakheim gives his assurance: “It’s ok; I’m just like a doctor examining a patient.”
He dabs the cloth against a painted denim leg.
“I’m just trying to see what’s going on here,” he says.
Mounted above the post office door is the patient – a Depression-era painting that is chipped, peeling and may not last another five years without some emergency restoration, Zakheim estimates. “But the damage is correctable,” he says.
His father, the late Bernard Zakheim, and San Francisco-based artist, created the painting in 1939 as part of the Works Progress Administration, one of the federal government’s largest New Deal agencies.
The painting is as old as the post office itself and features one lone Cherokee Indian observing overall-clad prisoners from the East Texas Penitentiary, before it became the State Hospital. The prisoners are harvesting tomatoes and onions.
Zakheim believes it was his father’s attempt to show the discord of the land and the plight of the Native Americans. The Cherokee people watch prisoners farm what was once their land, now lost to plantations and early industry.
The painting, “Agriculture and Industry,” marks not only a poignant piece of Rusk’s history, but a broader look into the history of the entire country as congress stammered to bring the country and its artists out of a recession.
Despite the painting’s cultural and historical significance, the postmaster said this was the most attention it has gotten in a long time.
“The original was supposed to show a very traumatic dissention of Native Americans by pioneers,” Zakheim said.
When the Washington-based agency reviewed the plan, “they liked everything but the people,” Zakheim said. The late Zakheim was made to remove all but one Native American figure.
Zakheim thinks people liked his father’s mural better “when it was more controversial,” before it was censored.
“My father came in a time when the American people were the American people,” Zakheim said. “The egalitarian mood was a little racy, but it made people have pride for being from their roots.”
The late Zakheim also painted a mural for the Mineola Post Office, unveiled in 1938, another commission from the Works Progress Administration.
Lynda Rauscher, Mineola community development director said the painting was taken down decades ago and stored in a basement, where time and the elements gradually destroyed it.
The city’s museum, which is in the original post office building, commissioned Zakheim and his family to recreate the mural in 2004.
Since September, Zakheim has been removing the largest mural in the history of his profession from the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
The Secco Mural, “The Future Belongs to Those Who Prepare for It,” was painted by Peter Hurd in 1952, for the then Prudential Insurance Company, and is slated to be transferred to Artesia, N.M. It was originally planned to go to in an art museum in Denton.
While Zakheim travels from Los Angeles to Houston to Rusk, restoring invaluable works and discovering his father’s forgotten paintings, he and his wife, Roupa Munjari devi dasi, said they want to organize a tour of the late- Zakheim’s holocaust work at Holocaust Museum Houston.
“My father was a very colorful and unpretentious man,” Zakheim said. “When he came to town, everybody would know it.”
“It was almost as though he was walking through a painting he was painting,” and the people he met were the figures, Zakheim said.
Through that personal style of developing figures and characters, seeing people more than they had ever been seen before, Zakheim said his father captured the essence and spirit of the communities he painted.
“This country belongs to the people who are working here,” Zakheim said. “He would see the people and would say, ‘This is yours.'”
Published February 14
Tyler Morning Telegraph