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January 07, 2019

“Manufacture of Furniture: A Mural by Walter Antonius Carnelli”

By Gary Hollandsworth and Fran Snead

If you have heard of the Bassett Historical Center, then you know that the Center is an independent research facility that specializes in both family and local history.  People come from all over in and out of the United States to get help with their genealogy as well as to get help with history projects, the writing of books, to complete a thesis for college, and the like.  Many people donate items to the Center in the form of, not only many years worth of genealogy research, but also in photographs, books, and display items as well.  Here at the Bassett Historical Center, we are extremely fortunate to have a small number of volunteers that help out with the projects and collections.  And, believe me, we could not do without them!  Gary Hollandsworth began volunteering at the Center a few years ago.  He is an avid history lover and sometimes in working with collections and on projects, he finds subjects of interest to him that causes further investigation.  He was amazed to learn that many people who visit the Bassett Post Office almost daily haven’t really noticed or paid much attention to the mural before that is located inside. Wanting to know more about this unique masterpiece, the following is what he was able to uncover.

Walter Antonius Carnelli was born in Graz, Austria in 1905.  He studied art in Gras, Vienna and Paris before migrating to America and obtaining U.S. citizenship.  Prior to this, he attended the State School of Fine Arts and also studied modern sculpture with Professor Stein in Vienna.  From there he went to Paris where he stayed for six years and studied under Paul Corpus.  Afterwards, he accepted art commissions to England, Switzerland, and Holland.  He arrived in New York on February 7, 1935 on a ship from Cherbourg, France, called the S.S. Bremen.

Four years later in 1939, he somehow made his way to Bassett, Virginia for a special art project that remains in the town today.  What brought this young man to the outlying region of Southwest Virginia so far away from his early life in Austria?  Like so many in that depression era, he needed work!

Carnelli’s Bassett mural depicts the primary industry of Bassett at the time, the manufacture of furniture, hence the title of his Bassett work.  His fresco reveals craftsmen at work in various stages of furniture making.  Some are cutting lumber, or examining a turned spindle.  You can feel the sense of detail they are giving to their individual jobs.  In the painting you will not see any high tech in the workplace of 1939.  Instead you will see what he saw, hardworking men of the factory performing labor intensive jobs creating furniture that would end up across the country. He accepted other work for the Section of Fine Arts including a mural entitled “Smelting” for the Bridgeville, Pennsylvania Post Office.

Bassett became a vibrant and growing community due to the furniture factories started by the Bassett family in 1902.  In 1892, years before the factories and before Carnelli arrived in the area, John Henry Bassett applied for a post office for what was then known as “Bassett’s” Virginia.“ Typical of post offices of the period, it is brick of symmetrical design with windows on either side of a centered entryway framed by Doric columns and with an eagle above the double doors.” (1)  It was an impressive structure when built and still is today.  Carnelli came to work in the post office for a brief period of time in 1939 but not to forward letters and packages.

He came during “The Great Depression” when millions of our country’s inhabitants were out of work just like Carnelli.  Our nation and its leadership under President Franklin D. Roosevelt came up with numerous programs designed to create jobs and to get the country working again.  One of those agencies was the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) under the guidance of the Civil Works Administration.  It was designed “to give work to artists by arranging to have competent representatives of the profession embellish public buildings.” (2) And there were thousands of them that needed jobs.  Carnelli who then lived in Warrenton, Virginia took advantage of the opportunity. The Federal Works Agency reports that he “received his commission as a result of an Honorable Mention in a Section of Fine Arts competition.”

The PWAP only lasted less than a year but gave nearly 3,700 artists jobs and created nearly 15,000 works of art.  In 1935, a new agency the Federal Art Project (FAP) under the guidance of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) took its place.  It continued until 1943 when higher priorities towards the war effort replaced it and caused its demise.  

Holger Cahill was the National Director of the WPAFAP.  Under his leadership “in 1935 a range of creative, educational, research, and service projects was organized to preserve the skills of professional artists in mural, easel, sculpture, and graphic art divisions.”  He stated in 1936 that “The organization of the Project has proceeded on the principle that it is not the solitary genius but a sound general movement which maintains art as a vital, functioning part of any cultural scheme.” (3)  This artistry was to be spread out to rural communities such as Bassett, Stuart, and Rocky Mount, Virginia.

The artists Cahill hired were from relief rolls and were sent across the country to create their art to be placed in federal government buildings.  In return they received pay of $23.50 per week.  The requirements they faced were to turn in one work within a specified number of weeks.  Or they would simply work a certain number of days on a mural or architectural sculpture project. (4)  Their work was to be appropriate to the environment in which the buildings existed.  Carnelli took advantage of the work that was offered.

At its height in 1936 the agency employed more than 5000 artists. It produced 2,566 murals, over 100,000 easel paintings, about 17,700 sculptures, nearly 300,000 fine prints, and about 22,000 plates for the Index of American Design.  The total federal expenditure was around $35,000,000. (5)  That was a lot of money to spend on art in those days.

Sadly, a lot of the work of the thousands of WPAFAP artists has been destroyed, lost and even stolen. In Concord, North Carolina a work entitled “The Spirit of North Carolina” was destroyed when the post office was torn down.  However, in many areas of the country these images have been saved by communities that valued their heritage. 

A number of art projects took place in Virginia.  In 1938 a three-panel mural was created in neighboring Franklin County by Roy Hilton entitled “Life in Rocky Mount”.  In nearby Stuart, Virginia in 1942 John E. Costigan painted an oil on canvas entitled “Receiving the Mail on the Farm”.  Another oil on canvas was painted in 1938 by Carson Davenport for Chatham, Virginia named “Harvest Season in Southern Virginia. (6)

The Martinsville Bulletin reported in an article dated July 28, 1972 that “Professor Dean Carter of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, inspected the Bassett mural as part of a government program to determine the condition of such paintings in post offices throughout the country.  It reported that the Bassett painting is a true fresco, a method of applying color on wet plaster of the wall itself.  In the fresco technique, a special coat of plaster is applied to an area no larger than the artist will be able to paint in one day.  He then applies his color over the wet plaster, working so the lines of each day’s painting are as nearly lost as possible in the finished work.” Bassett Postmaster Clyde L. Kinney’s and Professor Carter’s inspection of the then thirty-three year old mural revealed “that the colors are dull and muted, possibly partially due to age.”  Now seventy-nine years old, it remains a striking depiction of Bassett’s furniture history.

Carnelli’s beautiful images can still be seen in the historic Bassett Post Office located at 3465 Fairystone Highway in the town of Bassett.  As you enter the building, look to your right above the door to the Postmaster’s office.  There you will see his fresco painted into the surface of the wall. We do not know how long it took him to paint it but the average pay for a FAP work was about 75 dollars or about three week’s pay.  As reported in visitmartinsville.com his works included “Smelting” in the Bridgeville, Penn., post office. That work was destroyed during a post office renovation circa 1960. Other works by Carnelli have been exhibited in the Corcoran Museum in Washington, D.C., and in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

The WPA artists left a legacy for localities across the United States.  It you haven’t seen Carnelli’s mural take the time to stop by the Bassett Post Office.  Hopefully these beautiful creations will be taken care of for many years to come.

Sources:

(1)     Manufacture of Furniture – Mural at Bassett Post Office – Virginia Is For Lovers (www.virginia.org/listings/The Arts/ManufactureofFurnitureMuralatBassettPostOffice/

(2)     John R. Graham, Curator of Exhibits, Western Illinois University Art Gallery, 1 University Circle, Macomb, Illinois 61455, www.wpamurals.com/history

(3)     https://www.britannica.com/topic/WPA-Federal-Art-Project

(4)     https://www.britannica.com/topic/WPA-Federal-Art-Project

(5)     https://www.britannica.com/topic/WPA-Federal-Art-Project

(6)     www.wpamurals.com/virginia.htm











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