Mural painter John Augustus Walker painted in bold tempera strokes that gave his oversized paintings an aura of dense, dreamlike motion. Walker, a full-time railroad clerk in Mobile who also worked as a Mardi Gras float and costume designer, got an important commission in the spring of 1939 to paint a series of murals to tell the story of Alabama farming, for display at the Alabama State Fair.
The 10 paintings that resulted from that transaction, collectively called Historical Panorama of Alabama Agriculture, were heralded at the fair and then promptly forgotten until their rediscovery in the attic of Auburn University’s Extension headquarters. A 2006 exhibition of Panorama was organized for the commemoration of Auburn’s 150th anniversary, but a current showing, timed for the 100th anniversary of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, marks the first time they have been exhibited in a museum setting.
That exhibition runs through Sept. 21 at the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University and includes other WPA-era art from the museum’s permanent collection. Prominent artists represented include Marsden Hartley and Grant Wood, alongside regional artists such as Frank Applebee, Edward Everett Burr and Nell Choate Shute.
Bruce Dupree, art director with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, said that in the 1930s, the Extension Service was a major player on the state’s agricultural and political stage. “As in years past, in 1938 fair organizers contacted the Extension Service and Alabama Polytechnic Institute to have a large exhibit at the upcoming Alabama State Fair, ” he said. “Once a theme was decided, Extension leaders sought an artist through the regional Works Progress Administration, or WPA.”
Walker’s ten-panel Panorama looks back to the area’s Native American first farmers and culminates with modern advances in farm technology and its benefits. “Much like a stage set, the murals were designed to only last for a short period of time, about two weeks, ” said Dupree. “The next year would likely bring a new design.”
By the early 1940s, the murals were lost and forgotten. “Americans’ thoughts were turning from domestic issues to world headlines, such as the war in Europe. With advancing technology, the message of the murals became outdated.”
Text by Dave Helms