Dr. Gayle Seymour Discussing the Post Office Mural Tonight in Dardanelle.

With permission from USPS.

This evening at 7:00 PM at the Dardanelle Senior Center, Dr. Gayle Seymour will discuss her reserach on the Dardanelle Post Office Mural and possible avenues for the restoration of the mural.  The McElroy House will be working with the Historical Society and others to explore ways to use the mural as a path to community-based research and discussions regarding the changing industry in our town, the history of sharecropping, and more.

We hope you’ll come join us.  A few months ago I wrote a column about the mural, which discusses Dr. Seymour’s research.  You can read the whole thing here: http://boileddownjuice.com/the-seed-and-the-story-for-wednesday-july-10-2011/

Or read bellow. Hope to see you there!

The Seed and the Story for August 10, 2011: Dardanelle Post Office Mural

As a young girl, my mother would frequently take me with her to drop off mail at our 1930s era post office in Dardanelle.  She’d always point out the New Deal-era mural hanging above the post master’s door.  A three-panel painting depicting the artist’s rendition of industry in the river valley, the two side panels feature men spinning cotton and loading boxes on boats to send down river.  In the larger, center panel are white and black men working in the cotton fields.  “See those people picking cotton,” my mother would say.  “Your grandparents used to pick cotton in Cardon Bottoms.”   My mother loved that mural, and fostered in me a deep curiosity about the history of family and community which fuels my work today.

I had the opportunity to visit with Dr. Gayle Seymour, an art historian at the University of Central Arkansas, who studies and advocates for the twenty one Depression-era murals across our state.  Whether in the classroom or in the communities, Seymour spreads the word about the importance of these public pieces.  The mural in Dardanelle, she explained, was created by Ludwig Mactarian. Born in 1908 in Smyrna and of Armenian descent, Mactarian escaped the Armenian Genocide before coming to New York City at the age of thirteen.  Like most mural artists who applied for the Federal Art Project, Mactarian was a largely unknown and out of work.  He was hired to create the mural for Dardanelle’s new post office under the Percent for Art model, wherein one percent of the building’s cost was allocated for the creation and installation of community art.  This federal program put artists back to work and is known today as one of the most successful public art projects of all time.  One thousand four hundred murals were completed nationwide, all for installation in public buildings known for their high traffic and everyday use.

The center panel is what makes the Dardanelle mural particularly daring, Seymour explained.  The government specified that all murals focus on regional history, industry and growth.  There was little room for challenging the status quo.  But Mactarian, a man intimately familiar with injustice, focused on the economically poor black and white families whose labor fueled the industry.  At the center of the mural, standing out from the other workers, is a black man carrying a loaded basket of cotton high on his back. From an art historian’s perspective, Seymour explains, the man is a reference to “Atlas supporting the globe.”  The artist’s intent, Seymour argues, “is to show [that] the African American sharecropper carries the weight of the world on his shoulders.”  Mactarian, man who never visited Dardanelle before coming to install the mural, chose to focus on the human lives and stories behind the industry.  His work is one of few in the nation depicting African Americans.

The cotton industry died out in Yell County decades ago, but is still very much a part of our oral history, a subject which needs greater documentation.  Mactarian’s suggestion that million-dollar industries are upheld by those men and women who work the hardest, are paid the least, and have the fewest opportunities, is as true today as when the mural was created.  The industries, workers, and societal structure may have somewhat changed, but the larger economic and social realities remain.

We’re lucky in Dardanelle.  Our post office is still standing and the mural intact, thanks to the hard work of citizens who’ve fought to keep it that way. But the mural needs restoration to prevent decay.  There’s been some talk of forming a Friends of the Mural Group (Seymour’s brilliant idea) to raise money for the restoration and help spread the word about its historical and present-day importance.

The Dardanelle Post Office mural is layered with meaning and this column barely skims the surface. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s looked up at the mural and wondered about—maybe even remembered—what it was like to be a sharecropper.  What are your thoughts on the mural?  Do you have an interest in helping to form a Friends of the Mural group?  Send me an email tomeredithmartin_moats@yahoo.com or leave a comment below. And if you happen to head to downtown Dardanelle today, visit the post office and take another look.  The doors are open twenty-four hours a day.

If you are interested in learning more about the documentation of post office murals across the state,visit the University of Central Arkansas’s Post Office Mural Documentation page by clicking here.

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