Murals: Art or atrocity? | AspenTimes.com

Murals: Art or atrocity?

John Colson

"Pony Express" is one of two Frank Mechau murals that are at the center of a battle between his family and a group of Native Americans. The murals could soon be removed from the federal office building in Washington, D.C., where they have hung for years. (Courtesy Debbie Strom, Redstone Inn)

The family of nationally renowned muralist and former Redstone resident Frank Mechau is nearing the end of a two-year battle over the “political correctness” of two Mechau paintings that for decades have hung in a federal office building in Washington, D.C.A group of Native American federal employees, upset over the depiction of the American Indian in Mechau’s two works and in the work of three other artists, has been working to get the murals removed.Among his locally famous works is a mural of a roundup scene, featuring bucking broncs and frenzied cowboys, which hangs in the Carbondale Post Office building. It originally hung in the Glenwood Springs Post Office but was taken down years ago when the building was remodeled, Strom said. She said Mechau’s wife Paula, who died last week in Grand Junction at the age of 98, found it gathering dust in the basement of Carbondale American Legion Post 100, and won approval to have it installed in the Carbondale postal facility when it was built in the 1980s.Strom is working with one of the artist’s sons, Mike, to gather signatures to have the paintings remain where they are in Washington, D.C., in the building that houses the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A copy of the petition is available at the front desk of the Redstone Inn, where Strom works.Mechau “brought Redstone alive as an arts community,” Redstone resident Debbie Strom said Monday. She said Mechau, who moved to the Crystal River town in the 1940s, established a painting class in the old Redstone School, which since has burned down.In addition, Mike Mechau, who lives in Palisade, is asking locals to contact the General Services Administration, which is overseeing the decision-making process.

“GSA needs to know that the work of Frank Mechau is highly regarded, that removal of historic public art on grounds of political correctness will set a very bad precedent, and that the depiction in the murals of scenes from our history, even a massacre scene, involving native peoples and outsiders does not demonstrate an intent to demonize natives,” Mechau wrote in a Nov. 1 appeal for support.His father’s murals, he continued, represent “an intent to stir in the viewer of these scenes some sense of the dramatic, sometimes tragic, confrontation that occurred in the conquest and settling of this country and to do so in a way that enlarges the experience of the viewer.”The two pieces in question are titled “Pony Express” and “Dangers of the Mail”; both depict scenes of Indians in various hostile poses.Mike Mechau, in his appeal for public support, said he believes these pieces should stay on the walls of the Ariel Rios building, or be moved to “some museum or public building where they could readily be seen” by the public.Strom noted that the Mechau family, after Frank died in 1946 at the age of 42, remained an important part of the Redstone community and the Crystal River Valley.Paula Mechau raised four children on what has been described as a meager income. After the kids grew up and left home, she became a founding member of the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association, a watchdog group created to fight a plan to dam up the Crystal River above Redstone, according to an obituary published in The Valley Journal.She also “has been bearing the cross to keep [Frank’s] art alive for 52 years,” according to Strom.

Frank Mechau’s works hang in a variety of national museums and federal offices. He participated in Depression-era federal public arts programs of the 1930s.According to a summary of the controversy on the GSA website, the building in question was “constructed between 1931 and 1935, [and] was designed and built to house the U.S. Department of the Post Office. The building contains 25 murals created under a 1934 U.S. Treasury art commissioning program. The murals were created for the building between 1931 and 1938 as part of the federal government’s arts program. This was the first location for the integration of murals in federal buildings for New Deal Era federal art programs.”The website summary refers to “objections raised by visitors and federal employees … about the appropriateness of six murals, including complaints that the murals stereotype Native Americans and that they contain images that are inappropriate for the workplace.”The deadline for sending public comments via letter or e-mail to NCR.Historic.Preservation@gsa.gov is Dec. 1.John Colson’s e-mail address is jcolson@aspentimes.com

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