Art for All, and All for Art

I hold this truth to be self-evident: there is no such thing as bad public art. On the history of a certain public art genre — murals — Lincoln Kirstein wrote in 1932, “The decoration of walls by means of mural painting is as old as the stupendous bison in the Paleolithic caves of Altamira, but the intention and function of mural painting has constantly changed.”

In the 1930s, muralists were unleashed by their respective governments to revise and refurbish tarnished national narratives. The Conrad Albrizio fresco on the exterior facade of the Louisiana State Exhibit Museum [1938] is a beautifully restored example of so-called “heroic” public art. Albrizio was a member of the faculty at Louisiana State University when Huey Long hired him to decorate the State Capitol in 1932. A master of traditional fresco technique, Albrizio worked with the Works Progress Administration [WPA] on numerous public art projects completed during the Great Depression. The colored wet plaster comprising the 710-square foot mural above the Museum’s main entrance has suffered severe water and ultraviolet damage over the years, but has now been carefully restored to its former glory.

By the 1970s the idea of public art had radically changed the notion of public space and the ownership thereof. Meg Saligman’s Once in a Millennium Moon [2000 – 2001], which wraps around the AT&T Building in downtown Shreveport, is an example of the expanded social and technical vision of public art. Saligman’s mural is aptly named, since the 30,000 square-foot image is so large that it can be seen from the moon.

Another mural of equal social and aesthetic significance to those two works has generally been excluded from the Shreveport lexicon, until now. To discover this forgotten gem you must visit the well-marbled lobby of the Commercial National Bank at 333 Texas Street, where you will be greeted by a magnificent five panel mural by Texas muralist, sculptor, architect, and inventor, James Buchanan (Buck) Winn, Jr. [1905 – 1979].

Above the check-writing stations and teller booths hangs the history of Caddo Parish, colorfully recounted in five 8′ x 16′ panels. From the left you have King Cotton, then the lumber industry of Northern Louisiana, followed by the clearing of the Red River, then oilfields atop Caddo Lake, and finally a celebration of all the once and future explorers who have populated the region.

As befits a Texan nicknamed Buck, Mr. Winn refused to suckle at the WPA teat, instead hustling paid commissions from clients such as the Dallas Medical Arts Building, Highland Park Village Theater, the Hillcrest Mausoleum, the Driscoll Hotel in Corpus Christi, the Blackstone Hotel in Fort Worth, and the Texas Centennial and World’s Fair in Dallas. Ironically these paid commissions have been overlooked in the dearth of scholarship devoted to the American mural scene — primarily Post Offices — of the 1930s.

Winn’s five-piece mural was restored in 1987 when the 17-story limestone building was joined to the 26-story tower next door on Texas Street. Today you can visit the CNB during business hours and view this magnificent piece of public art that inspires regional pride, and acknowledges the can-do nature of the Ark-La-Tex. Because history has shown us that mural restoration is indeed a tricky business.


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