Cotton, Tomatoes, And Robert Johnson Is 20 Feet TallTuesday, November 26, 2013
"Life in the Mississippi Cotton Belt" is the Section work in the Hazlehurst, Mississippi post office -- the artist was Auriel Bessemer, paid $700 for this oil on canvas work. It was completed in 1939.
Auriel Bessemer was a Columbia University grad from Grand Rapids, Michigan and was hired for two other works in post offices, one in Arlington, Virginia, and another in Winnsboro, South Carolina. Bessemer also completed murals for the American Museum of Natural History in NYC.
From the National Register application:
Bessemer's Hazlehurst mural is representative of the type of art work generated by the Treasury Department's Section of the Fine Arts in the 1930s and early 1940s. It depicts in a realistic style "the American scene" as it would have been understood in Hazlehurst, a rural Mississippi community with a diversified economy. "Life in the Mississippi Cotton Belt" symbolizes the New Deal's attempt to educate and inspire Americans...
further, in the application:
The Hazlehurst Post Office and mural illustrate how the Federal government through Franklin Delano Roosevelt's leadership transformed its role from one of "neutral arbiter to social welfare activist", a role the government has retained down to today. Hazlehurst, along with the rest of rural Mississippi, suffered greatly during the Great Depression. The construction of Hazlehurst's post office and the painting of its mural demonstrate how the Federal government sought to
alleviate the economic hardships of an American community through work relief while also attempting to hearten and encourage that community through public beautification (Craig 1979: 343)
The Crystal Springs post office has this 1943 oil on canvas by Henry La Cagnina, trained at Cooper Union, who also was paid $700 for the work. It is entitled 'Harvest'. In 1992, the artist was contacted by phone prior to the the National Registry application, and stated that a restoration on the work was detrimental in that the work lost its 'pearly gray tonality'. While many artists who worked for the Treasury in doing these 'Section' works lived in some other area of the country, La Cagnina was once in Florida and moved to Hattiesburg where he exhibited his work.
From the application:
...Although local tradition holds that the farm workers depicted in the mural were residents of Crystal Springs, La Cagnina states that the people in the mural sprang from his imagination. Nevertheless, the mural was quite appropriate for a community which had once been known as the "Tomato Capital of the World".
..."Harvest" is representative of the type of art work generated by the Treasury Department's Section of the Fine Arts in the 1930s and early 1940s. The oil-paint-on-canvas mural depicts in a realistic style "the American scene" as it would have been understood by a community such as Crystal Springs whose livelihood depended on truck farming. Its appeal and significance to Crystal Springs is apparent due to the tradition among locals that Mr. La Cagnina made sketches of workers on the nearby experiment station grounds in preparation for the mural and that local people are portrayed in the painting. A mural disliked and unappreciated by its community could hardly have generated such a persistent rumor. Also, the restoration of the mural, though deemed inappropriate by the artist, is an indication of Crystal Springs' continuing commitment to the La Cagnina work...
Inside the post office, Av ran into someone who took interest in him photographing the mural. She told him about how they used to wrap each tomato individually (which is why at first glace, it looks as though the workers are packing giant plums). She also said that the artist's son brought him in to the post office one day to visit the mural and how upset he was at the restoration. Av mentioned that they must have one of the less controversial murals (there's been discord at other post offices, one instance in Columbus and another in Texas, for example) and she didn't see why anyone would have any problem with any mural depicting the cotton crop, that she picked cotton herself when she was young, and there's no shame in that, no matter who you are.
This mural of a peanut farmer, done by Charles Johnston in Colquitt, Georgia in 2010 is terrific.
Both Crystal Springs and Hazlehurst have Robert Johnson museums (he was born on the outskirts of Hazlehurst and stayed there again when he learned and played with Ike Zinnerman, and Robert's son Claude Johnson's foundation runs the museum in Crystal Springs).
There's a 20 foot tall mural of Robert Johnson that was just completed in Chattanooga.