Wood carvings will be included in new book

Above the racks of packaging supplies in the Park Rapids post office are three unique pieces of the past that have been "hanging out" over the postmaster's door since 1941, their significance too often overlooked.

Above the racks of packaging supplies in the Park Rapids post office are three unique pieces of the past that have been "hanging out" over the postmaster's door since 1941, their significance too often overlooked.

The three wood relief carvings "Indian," "Park Service Symbol" and "Lumberjack in Setting," created by nationally recognized artist Alonzo Hauser, are chiseled into the history of Park Rapids and of the nation as a whole, depicting hope after a time when there was little - the Great Depression.

The Park Rapids post office was one of at least 26 Minnesota post offices adorned with works of art during this era, along with hundreds more nationwide. Much of this distinctive art has been lost over the years, but recently, there has been a renewed interest. Restoration of many pieces is now in the process.

Roger G. Kennedy and David Larkin, coauthors of a new book, "When Art Worked," yet to be finished, are including the three Park Rapids wood relief carvings within the pages.

"It will be a big book," said Larkin, mentioning it will include art from several programs and artists in the mid-1900s.


Kennedy, who was born in St. Paul, had last seen the Park Rapids post office art about 50 years ago.

"We often stopped in Park Rapids on our way to 'the lake' from St. Paul in the early 1940s, and occasionally in the 1960s," he said.

The story behind America's post office art is noteworthy.

After the stock market crash poured out the piggy banks of so many Americans, Roosevelt began rebuilding the country with the New Deal.

Prior to the depression, America had made great strides in art, finally becoming independent of European art and establishing several museums. Roosevelt realized not only the progress but also the art in general could potentially be lost after several museums shut down during the depression. There was also the fate of "the starving artists" who struggled to find work.

As a branch of the New Deal, Roosevelt decided works of art were to become a part of everyone's daily lives.

Post offices, among other federal buildings where people might go on an everyday basis, were chosen to house the soon-to-be-made sculptures, murals and other pieces.

"Post offices were the secular gathering places for Americans in the 20th century. Art there could draw the community together, emphasizing common experience and a sense of common ownership of parks and history," said Kennedy.


Several art programs came and went as the 1930s and 1940s progressed, such as the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), programs through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Section of Fine Arts, known as "the Section," administered by the Procurement Division of the US Treasury, out of which the Park Rapids post office artwork emerged.

The Section art is too often confused as the art of the WPA.

Kennedy explained, "The WPA programs emphasized finding good work for artists to do after Harry Hopkins basic recognition, 'Hell, they have to eat just like other people.'

The post office mural program under the Section ... ran competitions among recognized artists to provide works of art, rather than work for artists. WPA art often produced very good work but by younger and less recognized artists than those chosen by the competitions."

A jury of artists, postmasters and/or local citizens judged the artists who submitted designs through the Section. The chosen artists were paid through special funds.

In her publication, entitled "Off The Wall: New Deal Post Office Murals," Patricia Raynor wrote, "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."

"Hauser was a recognized midwestern artist who was willing to compete for the relatively small Park Rapids commission because he was happy to have the work, because the subject interested him and because of his reception by the town's leader, led by Mr. Campbell, the postmaster, was so cordial," Kennedy explained.

Not to drain the morale of the people, the art in the post offices portrayed positive, heroic themes shadowing the tragedies of the depression.


Raynor wrote, "Social realism painting, though popular at the time, was discouraged. Therefore, the very real scenes of jobless Americans standing in bread lines are not to be found on post office walls."

The paintings and sculptures were supposed to be locally and historically accurate in design and portray the better part of the "American scene."

Often times when an artist was chosen, they were unable to visit the area they were painting or sculpting about. Citizens were sometimes frustrated with inaccurate results in the art design and in the fact that the artist did not know the area.

Kennedy said that was no problem for Hauser.

"Hauser's story of the citizens of Park Rapids being so friendly and sophisticated about art was, and is, very impressive. They wanted good stuff, welcomed an artist and were hospitable. Not all citizens in all towns were."

Hauser's oak wood relief pieces are great representations of the Park Rapids area. "Indian" represents the first people to settle the area. "Lumberjack in Setting" signifies the logging business in the area and "Park Service Symbol" shows a scene of lakes, deer and pines. The artwork hangs above the postmaster's door, a common place for post office art.

Other themes in the post office art in Minnesota include agriculture, iron-ore mining, the Mississippi and early Voyagers.

The Park Rapids US Post Office is located on Highway 71, two blocks south of the stoplights. Hauser's artwork can be seen on the wall to the right as customers walk in the front door.

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