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Natalie Henry and the WPA Post Office Mural
Springdale, Arkansas, WPA Post Office Mural Information and Background
When Franklin D. Roosevelt became President of the United States in 1933, the country faced a deep economic crisis. What began in 1929 as the New York stock exchange crash had become a worldwide depression.
In Arkansas over 200 banks had failed and more than half of its factories had closed. The record drought of 1930 and the collapse of cotton prices devastated farmers. Thousands of Arkansawyers who had money in those banks, jobs in those factories, or depended on the land for a living were deeply worried. Arkansas was a poor state, the only one to default on its debts during the Depression, and the state government could not (or would not) do much to relieve the suffering.
President Roosevelt promised action. He offered the American people a “New Deal,” full of bold, often experimental, programs. While the New Deal did not end the Depression – it would take World War II to do that – it did offer reforms and did help many ordinary folks get through some very hard times. Some New Deal reform programs, such as Social Security and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, are still with us. New Deal work relief programs, such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the old Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), are gone, but they produced things that still enrich our lives: parks like Devil’s Den and Lake Wedington; buildings like Vol Walker Library and the Student Union on the University of Arkansas campus; and works of art such as this mural.
Post Office Art
To pump life into the building trades, the New Deal awarded contracts to private companies for hundreds of new post offices. For some of the post offices, such as the one in Springdale, there was a bonus: a work of original art executed by one of the nation’s best artists. Natalie Henry of Chicago painted the Springdale mural which she installed in the new post office in 1940. It was moved to the Shiloh Museum in 1995.
Natalie Henry was born in Malvern, Arkansas, in 1907. She grew up drawing and painting, and took in all the art experiences she could in Malvern and Galloway Women’s College in Searcy. In 1928, thanks to a wealthy South Arkansas patron, she enrolled at the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago. When the Depression hit a year later, she had to drop out of school and find a job.
The Depression was discouraging for artists, as Natalie wrote in an April 1933 letter to her family: “Gosh, I’ll say the depression has cut into the art game - it has about ruined it! Only a few artists have jobs … no one is buying pictures right now.”
Natalie Henry watched with interest as the New Deal developed programs for artists. The first were work relief programs in which the government paid unemployed artists to paint and sculpt. Because Natalie had a part-time job in the Art Institute Library, she did not qualify for relief, but in 1934 something came along that she did qualify for: post office commissions awarded solely through anonymous competitions. In 1939, Miss Henry did so well in a St. Louis, Missouri, competition that she was offered the Springdale mural commission.
In 1928, soon after she arrived in Chicago, Natalie met another young artist from down South, Rowena Fry of Nashville, Tennessee. “Nat” and “Ro” became fast friends, and for the next 56 years they shared studios, apartments, and the rich, exciting Chicago art world. The two artists were outgoing and popular and were often invited to exhibit their art. When Miss Henry retired in 1972, she was manager of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago art supply shop. She moved back to the family home in Malvern in 1985 and lived there until she died in 1992.
Between 1934 and 1943 the U.S. Department of the Treasury, which supervised construction of federal buildings, awarded commissions for more than 1,100 post office murals. The Section of Fine Arts, which administered the program, wanted realistic and accurate work. Artists were encouraged to visit the local community, do research, and then submit sketches.
In the spring of 1939, Natalie Henry visited Springdale and prepared two sketches for the mural, a historical one titled “House Raising,” and a contemporary one titled “Local Industries.” The Section of Fine Arts liked both sketches and left the choice up to the artist. Natalie chose “Local Industries” because the people she talked to in Springdale preferred that theme.
Natalie Henry received $560 for the Springdale mural. Out of that fee she had to cover all the expenses, including materials, travel and lodging, research, and installation.
Natalie Henry was impressed with the Springdale market on Emma Avenue which she saw during the 1939 strawberry harvest. Natalie wrote to government officials, “Springdale seemed unique to me in that it has a very fine market, is more prosperous and alert than most Arkansas towns. Almost any section of the state can grow any amount of products, but few towns have established a system of markets. Springdale built it up by trucking, etc. I considered a ‘market scene’ but as their marketing is carried out in the middle of their Main Street, that seemed to rule out much scenery.”
To symbolize the Springdale market, the artist included poultry and strawberry buyers in the mural. During their tour of Springdale in the spring of 1939, Natalie asked her father, Samuel E. Henry (county judge of Hot Spring County), to pose with a chicken. She used the photograph as the model for the poultry buyer on the left side of the mural.
The Artist Looks at Springdale
This sketch of “Local Industries” was based upon what Natalie Henry found during her visit to Springdale in the spring of 1939. She described the community in a letter to the Section of Fine Arts dated August 31, 1939:
The grape industry is important: Welch Grape Juice Co. has a unit there, and winemaking is carried on by others as well as that of grape-juice making. Every farm has a vineyard and an orchard. Crops are varied and continuous. Strawberries are among the finest in the state. A cannery cans several kinds of vegetables. Within the past few years the poultry industry has become enormous and broilers are shipped by the carload to Chicago and other points. Small farmers ship 1000 to 5000 at a time. Livestock is also important. Homes are modern and exceptionally well taken care of; the farms do not look like the old-time log-cabin variety.
Natalie Henry’s “Local Industries” is a respected work of art that has received a considerable amount of national attention. The mural was chosen from among 1,100 across America to illustrate the cover of Democratic Vistas, a book published in 1984 about the post office art program. And in 1995 the mural was featured in the Laguna Beach, California, “Pageant of the Masters,” representing Depression era post office art.
Importance of Preservation
World War II ended the federal post office art program. After a half century seventeen of the twenty-one pieces commissioned for Arkansas are still on public view.
Natalie Henry’s “Local Industries” changed hands in 1965 when the post office moved, and the Springdale School Board purchased the building for its administrative offices. The Springdale School Board and Superintendent Jim Rollins value the mural and, over the years, have given it the special care it deserved. While preparing to move into the new administration building, the Springdale School Board decided that the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History offered the best opportunity for the long-term preservation and continued public display of the mural. In 1995, the mural was moved from the old post office wall to the museum by conservator Rick Parker of Gentry.
The Artist’s Description of the Mural, 1940
The mural for Springdale, Ark. post office is entitled “Local Industries.” It shows people engaged in the typical pursuits of that prosperous agricultural community. Grape, strawberry, and orchard crops, as well as poultry raising are the chief topics shown. Because Springdale has a good market for each of her crops, buying and selling are indicated by having a buyer bargaining in the field for the output – on one side in the strawberry patch, on the other in the poultry yard. These fields extend from the foreground into the distance, where they merge into the rolling hills of the Ozark Mountain scenery. The houses shown are modern for there is no log-cabin type of scenery there. The mural is painted in oil, on canvas.
Shiloh Museum of Ozark History (firstname.lastname@example.org)