For more than seventy years, the murals of Frank W. Long have been hanging in post offices and other public buildings in the South and Midwest. “It was almost by accident that I became a painter of murals,” Long writes in Confessions of a Depression Muralist. In Confessions, Long blends history and personal anecdotes to paint a picture of what it meant to be a young artist struggling to make a living during the Depression. The Section of Fine Arts, for which Long painted, was established in 1932 under the Department of the Treasury. Unlike the Works Progress Administration, which paid artists a living wage to practice their own art, The Section was founded upon the ideal of establishing a truly American School of Painting. For almost ten years, Long was one of the most prolific muralists that this new School had to offer. Confessions opens a window onto the thoughts and reflections of a government artist that are as relevant now as they were then.
Preserving our cultural heritage has long been a passion for many of us at McKinney Graves Art Restorations. We have worked on statues and public art works in the past; but when we were asked to help restore “The Rural Free Delivery,” a Frank W. Long mural in the old post office of our hometown of Morehead, Kentucky, I had no idea how much I would gain in understanding and insight into the mind of this artist. Like us, Long was from Eastern Kentucky—a difficult area for an artist to make a living in during even the best of times. When people are hungry and sick, it is hard to convince them to spend money on preserving our cultural heritage. Yet during the Great Depression, New Dealers did.
The technical aspects of a restoration such as this are time consuming and difficult. The mural was painted in egg tempera on linen, a non-traditional method since egg tempera is very brittle and usually painted on a solid substrate. The sketch for this mural was sent to The Section’s Ed Rowan and although he approved the mural, he suggested some changes that he thought would be appropriate. Rowan thought the older of the two women in the mural were too unattractive and the younger women too alluring. Long responded in a letter, saying that Rowan should visit Morehead and “see for yourself the types of womenfolk we have,” and that the difference between youth and age was due to the “hellish existence most of these women had to endure.” As would many of us when trying to make a living, Mr. Long made the changes. But in his writings of later years, he was deeply ashamed of capitulating in the face of criticism and felt like he had sacrificed the aesthetic truth of what he saw for the sake of material reward.
“The Rural Free Delivery” is a symbol and one of the many artifacts that helps us all to imagine our shared lives. Our similarities are far greater than our differences, and it is very important to come from a common ground when standing up against the trials of a stressed world. For generations, we have sought communication with others by writing a letter, taking it to a common depository, and having faith that it will be safely delivered to the recipient. Our ancestors have stood beneath these murals in line to trust in the workings of our society. Frank Weathers Long’s “The Rural Free Delivery” is one such symbol of our common faith as citizens—to believe and trust in the workings of our shared social foundations and to say “Hello” to the folks in line with us.
Steven Rogers Graves is a writer, artist, and preservation specialist from Morehead, Kentucky. Along with his partner, Sam McKinney, they operate McKinney Graves Art Restorations in the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky. They restore public statues, memorials, and works of art. They both have been practicing for over forty years and have commissions throughout the United States. They are members of the AIC.