Missing post office mural done by Cleveland artist

Cathryn Stanley/Barnesville Enterprise Published:

BARNESVILLE — Current patrons of the Barnesville Post Office probably do not notice the bare wall above the post master's office. 

Those who have lived in the area since the early 1970s may remember that a colorful mural depicted the advent of airmail delivery once graced the lobby.

The mural, completed by Cleveland artist Michael Aloysius Sarisky (1906-1974) in March 1937 at a cost of $1,296, was one of thousands of “New Deal” art murals created for public spaces during The Great Depression. Barnesville's post office, opened in 1935, was also a Works Progress Administration project.

In a letter to Forbes Watson, advisor of the section of painting and sculpture of the United State Treasury Department's procurement division, dated November 2, 1937, Sarisky writes:

"I am sorry to have procrastinated to such an extent in answering your letter regarding my mural and description of characters contained in it. I feel however that there is little to say about it except that I portrayed the activity at the airport immediately after planes' landing — The mail is shown being unloaded from plane to mail truck. The entire panel was designed or based on that single activity and I must confess that I find it difficult to write anything like a colorful account of it.

“I have obviously been of little assistance to you in this matter, however I do have the satisfaction of knowing that I answered your letter."

According to United State Post Office officials in Columbus, the 13' x 5'6" mural was taken down during an audit in 1972 and stored at a Zanesville postal facility. It disappeared in 1980, officials theorized. It was in 1972 that Barnesville became part of the Zanesville (473) region. Barnesville Post Master Dana Carpenter said the mural was taken down with the intention of being restored and returned to Barnesville. Efforts by Carpenter and other post office officials to locate the mural have been unsuccessful.

An Oct. 23, 1935 article by Paul May in The Barnesville Enterprise announced that Sarisky was exhibiting his prize-winning sketch in a national display at the Corcoran Galley of Fine Art, opening Oct. 28 of that year.

"Washington, D.C. Oct. 23 — Michael Sarisky, 11225, Parkview Avenue, Cleveland, chosen to paint a mural in the new (opened in March) Barnesville post office, will exhibit his prize sketch in a national display at the Corcoran Gallery of Fine art, opening October 28.

“The exhibition is under the sponsorship of the division of painting and sculpture of the treasury department and will be confined to the work of artists and sculptors who either won prizes in competition for contracts to do work in Federal buildings or were runners up for such awards.

“Sarisky was among a number of competitors for the Barnesville job, and was awarded the contract on the basis of his original sketch."

Over the years, a discrepancy in artists, and therefore the title of Barnesville's mural developed, causing confusion to historians resulting in inaccuracies on Web sites and in other publications.

Sarisky's sketch was titled "Drift Toward Industrialization" and that was what was listed as the title of Barnesville's mural in the inventory notes of Federal Preservation Officer Dallan Wordekemper, CCIM.

Wordekemper told Bruce Yarnall, former general manager of The Enterprise and currently Operations and Grants Manager of the D.C. Historic Preservation Office, that the file for the Zanesville facility is missing, causing additional problems in verifying the results of the inventory. However he said he could confirm that the inventory was done in 1972 and documents show that the mural was placed in storage there at that time.

Many murals were removed in the 1970s as the oil crisis forced post offices to lower ceilings and reduce the size of retail lobbies in an effort to conserve energy.

Other post office records and therefore some Web sites credited New York artist Michael Loew as having created an oil on canvas painting for Barnesville dated 1937 and titled "Airmail."

Michael Loew (1907-1985) was born and lived in New York. He painted “Men of Coal and Steel” in 1942, in oil on canvas, for the Belle Vernon Post Office in Pennsylvania. A copy of that work is on file in the National Archives. The majority of the post office murals has been scanned and a black and white photo of Barnesville's mural was found there.

Adding another wrinkle to this mural mystery and causing more confusion, is the fact that a third artist, Clarence Carter (1904-2000), completed a study for the Barnesville Post Office Mural in 1935, also featuring an airplane.

Carter, who was from Portsmouth, Ohio, sought support from the federal government, executing several murals. His 1935 study for Barnesville included a train and a lighthouse. It was not accepted. The inclusion of the lighthouse proves that Carter had never been to Barnesville.

On May 6, 1935, the Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.) was created to help provide economic relief to the citizens of the United States who were suffering through the Great Depression.

The Federal Art Project was one of the divisions of the W.P.A. created under Federal Project One. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had made several attempts prior to the F.A.P. to provide employment for artists on relief, namely the Public Works of Art Project (P.W.A.P.) which operated from 1933 to 1934 and the Treasury Department Section of Painting and Sculpture which was created in 1934 after the demise of the P.W.A.P.

From 1934 to 1943, artists were selected for the 71 post office projects in Ohio. Nationwide, more than 1,300 murals and 300 sculptures were commissioned during that period.

Artists working for the Section were not chosen on the basis of need, but through anonymous competitions where the national jurors were often other artists. Although considered open competitions, restrictions were often attached to entries. For smaller competitions, the jury might consist of the postmaster, a member of the architectural firm, and a prominent citizen. Artists were also awarded commissions based on designs submitted for previous Section competitions. They were often paid for completing a work in a specific post office or federal building. One percent of the building construction funds was to be set aside for "embellishment" of the federal building, and artists were supposed to be paid from these funds.

Mural artists were provided with guidelines and themes for executing their mural studies. Scenes of local interest and events were deemed to be the most suitable. Artists invited to submit design sketches for a particular post office were strongly urged to visit the site, however, this was not possible for every artist.

Genre themes were the most popular subject matter for post office murals. Historical events and daring and courageous acts were popular themes. Most small town post office murals, such a Barnesville's, were constructed around the postmaster's door.

Many post office murals have vanished over the years. Others are in need of repair. Fortunately, there has been a renewed local interest in the depression era murals. These murals provide local communities with a colorful record of their heritage and give a glimpse of the American public's taste during a fascinating time in our nation's history.

Yarnall said he had hard copy photocopies of the mural and the two "study" sketched by artist Michael Sarisky for the "Barnesville, Ohio" Post Office. 

“Interestingly, the back of the final mural panel provides the dimensions of the final product (13' x 5'6"), the completion date (March 1937) and the cost ($1,296),” Yarnall noted. “Also, note Sarisky's comments to the Treasury Department as he tried to describe the final product.

“Since the Sarisky images were in the official USPS file that the Historic Preservation Officer's office created, I am satisfied that Sarisky was the winner of the Barnesville competition and the final image with the info on the back, size, cost, etc. proves that. Further, the Enterprise article in 1935 states so and notes that his artwork of what would become the final product was exhibited along with 6 other winners at the Corcoran in DC that fall.

“Since the other images we've collected from Post Offices are in color, I'm convinced Sarisky's was as well. I suspect the image you have a copy of was a black and white photograph taken by the Treasury Department around the time the mural was hung in Barnesville.”

Area residents harbor sincere hope that Barnesville's mural will be found and returned to its rightful place above the post master's door.

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