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‘Local American epics’

Arts | July 17th, 2019

Advance Guard of the West was painted by Edward Buk Ulreich - photograph by Sabrina Hornung

The US Postal Service recently released a set of stamps celebrating the New Deal era post office murals that were federally commissioned during the Roosevelt administration, though the mural that graces the walls of the New Rockford Post Office titled “Advance Guard of the West” wasn’t featured on any of the stamps, it provides a shining example of the Roosevelt administration’s depression era public art program.

According to its registration form for the National Register of Historic Places, the New Rockford Post Office was built in 1939 and “Advance Guard of the West” was painted by Edward Buk Ulreich in 1941. Curiously enough the signature of "H.B. Barton 1961" appears in the lower right hand corner of the piece. According to the listing on the National Register, it is believed to be bear the signature of its restorer and not the original artist.

Bartron was a native of Eddy county his work can be seen at both the Eddy county museum and Hanson’s bar in New Rockford, along with murals from the same era by “Cowboy” Joe Breckenridge, who gained the moniker “fastest painter in the west” at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933.

Ulreich was born in Koszeg, Hungary in 1889 and moved to the United States as a child. According to The Annex Galleries, he studied art at the Kansas City Art Institute and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and designed a number of art pieces during the WPA era.

“Advance Guard of the West” was funded by a post New Deal program that was overseen by the US Treasury from 1934-1943, the program was called "the Treasury Section of Fine Arts" (TSFA). According to livingnewdeal.org, the intent of the TSFA was, “to secure for the Government the best art which this country is capable of producing, with merit as the only test”

According to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s website, Ulreich was the winner of the 48 states competition, 972 artists from throughout the lower 48 states heeded the call and submitted 1475 design entries. The artists chose the state for which their work was designed and according to americanart.si.edu, “entries were not evenly distributed among the 48 post offices, and those designed from some areas did not measure up to Section standards. As a result the Section simply assigned winning designs to post offices for which no outstanding entries had been received.”

Ulreich’s original composition featured a group of cowboys from the southwest and was designed for the Safford, Arizona post office. According to americanart.si.edu, “Upon accepting the commission he wrote that he hoped the people of North Dakota would enjoy his Arizona cowboys.” He eventually redesigned the piece to depict a group of Dakota warriors “arrayed in their hunting regalia.”

Interestingly enough when the winners were announced in LIFE Magazine on December 4, 1939 in a photo feature titled, “Speaking of Pictures...This is mural America for rural Americans” the photo spread included a thumbnail of the proposed mural and a brief description of each of the winning pieces. It also stated that, “Each artist was required to visit the locality for whose post office mural he was competing, and to discuss possible subjects for mural treatment with local townspeople.”

No wonder Ulreich changed his design!

Also according to the article the average commission for these pieces was $725. The photo layout shows the original proposed design instead of the design that has graced the walls of the New Rockford Post Office for the past 80 years. Interestingly enough, his wasn’t the only piece that had undergone a design revamp. There were a number of entries that were rejected because the townspeople didn’t feel like the subject matter best represented them.

The same article stated, “Apparently rural Americans are artistic ‘stay-at-homes,’ with a preference for paintings that reproduce experiences and scenes and parts of history with which they are familiar. In spirit, many of these sketches are local American epics.”

One of three
“Advance Guard of the West” isn’t the only TSFA mural in our state but it may be the best example out of the three commissioned in North Dakota.

Another example of a TSFA mural in North Dakota is only about an hour northwest of New Rockford in Rugby, which holds the coveted and contested trademark, “Geographical Center of North America.” The aforementioned mural celebrates just that. There’s a depiction of North America and a number of its inhabitants as well as farmers standing with cattle and another holding an armful of wheat.

The mural was painted by Kenneth Callahan in 1943, not too long after the town claimed the title of “Geographic Center of North America” in 1931. The Post Office itself was built in 1940. Callahan was born in Spokane Washington, later in his career he served as assistant director and curator at the Seattle Art Museum, and was known for writing about contemporary art and leading the charge for modernist painters in the Pacific Northwest. 

According to historylink.org, “In 1946, Francis Henry Taylor, director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, wrote that he believed Callahan to be ‘probably the most American painter of our time.’"

The final mural is located in the Langdon Post Office which is also on the historic register. It was built in 1937, the oil on canvas mural titled “Taking Toll” or “Indians Demanding Wagon Toll” was painted in 1939 by Leo J. Beaulaurier, according to livingnewdeal.org, the mural illustrates “a tribe of Indians stopping a wagon train to exact the toll paid by white men for the privilege of crossing their lands.” According to the same site Langdon was also supposedly the smallest town to be “granted a mural.”

As for the reception of the Langdon mural, according to livingnewdeal.org, R. T. Burke, Langdon’s postmaster wrote in a letter dated October 18, 1939: “We are pleased with it ‘beyond words’ … The local paper gave us a very fine writeup, and have had just hundreds of people admire it… It also carries a significant history appeal, which is of much value.”

According to the same site, the artist studied the topography of North Dakota to ensure accuracy in his depiction of its landforms. This research resulted in Beaulaurier’s initial concept to be accepted without changes.

Leo J. Beaulaurier was a traditional western painter, illustrator and muralist who felt strongly about preserving the history of the west and according to the Meadowlark gallery which specializes in western art and sporting art in Beaulaurier’s home state of Montana, Beaulaurier known for his portraits of Native Americans on black velvet was quoted as saying, "A hundred years from now you won't be. able to look at this country as we see it now."

Beaulaurier was on to something. Speaking as one man as part of a generation that experienced America pre-industrialization. He was one of many left to beautify and provide a regional identity in a federal space leaving future generations with romanticized and even stylized representations of cowboys, Native Americans and tall tales of a bygone era. These artists provided a definitive slice of Americana on our cultural landscape. Thanks to these murals that slice of life still remains intact 80 years later.

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