WPA: Post office mural

The mural at the old post office in Merced, Calif. Thurs. April 29, 2010.
SUN-STAR PHOTO BY BEA AHBECK The mural at the old post office in Merced, Calif. Thurs. April 29, 2010. Merced Sun-Star

Walk into Merced's quiet Bell Station post office on 18th and K Street and you will be flanked by two murals from a different era.

Completed in 1937 as part of the Treasury Department's Art Program, the murals capture scenes on the Merced River and were just a small fraction of the artwork started and completed under New Deal auspices from 1933 to 1943.

While Works Progress Administration workers were busy with infrastructure projects in Merced and across the nation, similar job programs were created for painters, actors, musicians and writers.

More than 10,000 artists received government support in projects such as the Federal Writer's Program and the Federal Theater Program.

The Bell Station post office's twin murals are just a few of the many pieces of art created at the time. Over its nine-year life span, the Treasury Department's Section of Painting and Sculpture paid for 1,124 murals.

These works were permanently placed in federal buildings, such as the Merced Post Office, whose pieces illustrate scenes from the history of the Merced River.

"Vacheros," by Dorothy Wagner Puccinelli, depicts two pre-Gold Rush California cowboys watering their horses in the river.

"Jedediah Smith Crossing the Merced River," by Helen Forbes, shows Smith's party of 17 fording the river on their two-year trek from Utah to California.

Both women received their commissions after winning a contest conducted by a local committee, which included the building's architect, according to a 1936 Whitney Museum of American Art catalogue.

In a 1964 Smithsonian interview, artist Robert Howard, who also painted murals for some federal buildings, remembered the two ladies winning the contest in Merced.

"I seem to remember making some small sketches for the Merced Post Office. That was won by -- it was a kind of a competition -- that was won by the two ladies, one's dead now, the other, I think it was Dorothy Puccinelli and Helen Forbes, but I'm not sure. Helen's dead now. They had a much better idea than mine," he said.

This and other arts programs at the time are described in "Art in Federal Buildings," by Forbes Watson and Edward Bruce, the two men who administered much of the Treasury Department's arts programs:

"The receipt of a check from the United States Government meant much more than the amount for which it was drawn. It brought to the artist for the first time in America the realization that he was not a solitary worker. It symbolized a people's interest in his achievement."