too many years, this BIB (Born in Baytown)
didn't know what her hometown had in a certain familiar work of art.
Although I had seen the post office mural countless times, I didn’t
become aware of its significance until the early 1980s. One of our
reporters then at The Baytown Sun was a talented artist, Sherri
Carver, and she talked often about the mural created long before she
was born -- during the Depression in the 1930s. As a young child,
she enjoyed looking at it during trips to the post office with her
mother. The fading mural impressed, inspired her.
Office Mural: "Texas" by Barse Miller, 1938
TE photo, January 2012
from high school, Sherri majored in art at the University of Iowa
but illness forced an early departure. That’s when she returned
to her hometown and joined our news staff. Although staff artist
was not part of her job description, she did illustrations for stories
in addition to reporting and writing.
Over the years I’ve lost contact with Sherri but I hope she knows
the mural has been restored in the former post office building that
now houses the Baytown Historical Museum. I think she would
local mural is an example of myriad paintings that enlivened post
office walls during the Depression, and we can thank artist George
Biddle for starting it all. He told his friend, President Franklin
D. Roosevelt, that the Works Project Administration should include
jobs for artists. Biddle’s selling point: "Hell, they've got to
eat just like other people.”
FDR agreed and
established the arts section of Public Works Administration, earmarking
one percent of the post office budget for murals. Artists sent color
sketches of proposed murals to local committees for prescreening,
and those selected were forwarded to Washington for final judging.
In his book,
“The Texas Post Office Murals: Art for the People,” (Texas
A&M University Press), Philip Parisi wrote, "Some of this government-sponsored
art is genuinely powerful stuff. ... The post office in Baytown
got ‘Texas,’ an allegorical picture of a hunky bare-chested god,
complete with wings, about to cast an airplane out over the (post
noted the committee that awarded the contract to artist Barse Miller
“got the willies, found his heroic figure perhaps a bit too heroic.”
When Miller was asked to show a little less skin, he enlarged the
19th century train at the bottom of the picture and raised the subject’s
loin-cloth to a more modest level.
For an industrial town such as Baytown,
the artist could not have picked a better subject than this winged
creature guiding planes o’er the horizon. After all, a whole lot
of aviation fuel poured from the Baytown Refinery of then-Humble
Oil & Refining Co., now ExxonMobil, and in a just a few years after
the mural was painted, the oil industry in Baytown
would play a key role in winning World
Winged Victory: Wouldn’t that be a good hindsight name for our man
in the mural.
All that's missing from this land to air scene is the sea. Someone
should have reminded the artist about Baytown's
waterfront, from fishing boats to oil tankers. We're a town of bays,
spilling into the Houston Ship Channel and Galveston Bay.
Because competition for the mural contracts was anonymous, leaders
in the original city of Goose Creek – now part of Baytown
-- had no inkling about the background of the man who submitted
the sketch for the proposed mural. They didn’t even know his name.
Miller, the muralist, actually was better known as a water colorist.
During World War
II, Army Capt. Barse headed the Combat Art Section in the South
Pacific and produced water colors that visually documented the war.
He also worked as an art correspondent for Life Magazine. After
the war, the New York native taught art at Queens College. He died
In some ways the lives of Barse Miller and FDR's friend George Biddle
are similar, including their early interest in murals in Mexico,
their work as water colorists as well as muralists, their combat
art in WWII
and their connection with Life Magazine.
I bet they knew each other.
© Wanda Orton
9 , 2012 columns
Post Office Murals
Related Topics: Texas Towns
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