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January 18, 2011   Email to Friend 

MURALS, MURALS ON THE WALL: Depression-Era Art Still Tells Agriculture
By James Langcuster

One panel of Walker's murals reflects times when plowing by mule was as common as plowing by tractor.
If any artistic work could be described as an attic treasure, it is the 10 murals comprising the Historical Panorama of Alabama Agriculture.

They were conceived and executed as little more than stage art -- brightly colored backdrops for the farm pavilion at the five-day 1939 Alabama State Fair -- painted by a young WPA artist, John Augustus Walker, struggling to balance his moonlighting passion for art with a demanding day job.

Underscoring the project's fleeting nature, the murals were painted with tempera, a water-based and less durable medium, rather than Walker's preferred medium of oils.

They were conceived with two goals in mind: to show state fair goers how agriculture started and developed and, most important, how scientific farming methods were securing innovations and improvements despite the challenges stemming from Great Depression.

Neither Walker nor the others who conceived and executed the murals could have imagined what the murals have become: a tangible 21st century link to one of the most tumultuous chapters of Alabama's economic and agricultural heritage.

At the fair's conclusion, the paintings were returned to Auburn University, stored in the attic of Duncan Hall, headquarters of Alabama Cooperative Extension, which had commissioned the paintings, and largely forgotten.

End of story -- at least, for the next half century.

A brief flurry of interest followed the murals' rediscovery and restoration in the mid-1980s -- then back to the same attic where they might have languished another half century but for another rediscovery in the early 1990s by Extension Art Director Bruce Dupree.

Encountering the murals, Dupree recalls being seized by one overriding thought. "I wanted to find a better place for them, even if that involved taking them home with me if no other place could be found," he says.

Other professional demands intervened, and the murals were again forgotten.

Years passed until 2006, when Dupree and other members of the Extension Communications staff were searching for a creative way to illustrate Cooperative Extension's role in Auburn University's history during the university's Sesquicentennial celebration.

That's when Dupree was seized by another idea: to use the murals to tell Extension's story -- an effort endorsed by his boss, Dr. Carol Whatley, Extension's director of Communications and Marketing, who was instrumental in securing a permanent home for the murals at Auburn University's Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art earlier this year.

Fortunately for Dupree, Walker's almost obsessive record keeping provided him with his own tangible link to the past.

"That is one of the amazing facets of this story -- they (Walker and his wife) didn't throw anything away." Dupree says. "It may have been because he was a clerk or because of his personality -- or because WPA artists had to keep careful track of every postage stamp, every paintbrush purchased."

With these records and others compiled by Auburn University's Special Collections and Archives, Dupree managed to reconstruct the motivations leading up to the exhibit.

As he discovered, serendipity played a major role in the events. The effort essentially grew out of desperation on the part of Warren Leech, coordinator ofAlabama fair exhibits, who was looking for a way to replace 67 county displays with a consolidated exhibit. For assistance, he turned to Alabama Extension, then a major force in fair exhibits.

He quickly won over Alabama's hard-driving Extension director, P.O. Davis, who envisioned a series of paintings to underscore the role scientific methods had played in advancing farming and Extension's role in advancing them.

If a single mural best expresses Davis's abiding faith in scientific farming, it's the tenth mural, featuring a cornucopia of farm goods, Whatley says. "Basically, it illustrates that we have this cornucopia because we've learned how to produce food in ways that bring more goods and services and more civilization into people's lives," she says. "That's what Extension has always done -- helped people learn to do things more efficiently so their lives can be better."

In September 2006, using the murals as a backdrop, Dupree shared the panorama's history with a packed gallery of Auburn alumni, history buffs and arts students as part of Auburn's Sesquicentennial Lecture Series.

Following the Sesquicentennial, Dupree and Whatley hoped the paintings would quickly find their way into other shows, but the paintings needed restoration and conservation before they were ready to travel.

Last Nov. 7 until Dec. 31, the murals became the centerpiece of a Birmingham Historical Society exhibit at the Birmingham Public Library titled "Murals, Murals on the Wall: Our Story through Art in Public Places, 1929-1939," highlighting Alabama WPA artists' work.

So what accounts for this growing appreciation for the murals? While conceding that nostalgia certainly plays a role, Whatley suspects the murals may fill a deeper psychological need, providing viewers with a sense of focus and perhaps of rootedness in the aftermath of the 2008 Stock Market crash.

"It may partly explain why people are so interested in this now. We've had a wakeup call, and we're looking back to learn what earlier generations did in hard times."

Author James Langcuster is a news and public affairs specialist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. This article first appeared on the Extension website. The Extension system is offering a set of 20 5-inch by 7-inch note cards depicting the murals for $11 per set. For more information, call (334) 844-1592 or visit Extension's murals page.



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