Want to see world-class works of art? Head to your local Oklahoma post office
Your local post office may not be the place where you would expect to see world-class art. Oklahoma is an exception. Thirty-one post offices around the state are adorned with murals that are simply masterpieces.
The post office in downtown Anadarko in southwestern Oklahoma may not look like much from the outside, but inside, something extraordinary awaits those dropping off letters, bills or picking up mail.
Above the usual customer notices is a a piece titled, Scenes of Indian Life, by Kiowa artist Stephen Mopope.
"They probably don't know anything about it... it's just, you know, oh, it's an Indian thing you know, they go on about their business," said Vanessa Jennings, a Kiowa artist and granddaughter of Mopope. "They don't realize what they're looking at is so important — material culture, you know, the tradition, the customs, you know, all of that."
The 16-panel mural in the Anadarko Post Office is one of 31 works of art in Oklahoma commissioned by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s and 1940s.
Mopope, who was part of a movement of artists known as the Kiowa Six, painted this one in 1937. The panels portray hunting, dances, storytelling and daily Kiowa life.
Mopope learned to paint on buckskin from his grandmother, and that tradition comes across in his work.
Jennings said no detail escaped her grandfather's eyes as he painted vivid colors on the regalia of Kiowa eagle dancers, singers and a cradleboard carrying a baby on the back of a Kiowa woman. She is an experienced cradleboard maker herself, and she took special notice of the details in the beadwork her grandfather painted.
"You see the top of the cradle board — that's a beautiful design," she said, pointing up at the design and colors of a Kiowa woman and her child in a cradleboard that adorns one of the panels.
Other scenes depicted the seasons, hunting in preparation for the winter, setting up and moving their camps.
"This is the summertime, so there's plenty of buffalo," she remarked of one panel, pointing out the buffalo as what Kiowas depended on. "[The buffalo] was their grocery store, their clothing store, their shoe store."
Six Indigenous artists were chosen to be a part of the WPA project in Oklahoma, including Acee Blue Eagle, Richard West and Woody Crumbo, who painted murals in places like Coalgate, Seminole, Okemah and Nowata.
Artists and writers were employed by the WPA to chronicle American life, create murals and embellish public buildings for ordinary people. The program was a way of promoting arts during the Great Depression.
Ruthe Blalock Jones is an artist and the former head of the art department at Bacone College, an institution in Muskogee that nurtured Native artists in the early part of the 20th century. Bacone is known for developing what's known as the "Oklahoma Flatstyle."
"It's called a flat because there was a large application of color," said Blalock Jones, who has seen the mural in Anadarko and said you get the feeling of motion in Mopope's work. She classified Scenes of Indian Life as "top of the line."
Flatstyle was based on the teachings of Oscar Jacobson, a professor at the University of Oklahoma. Blue Eagle, West and Crumbo were also teachers — all at Bacone College. The Kiowa Six artists like Mopope applied those techniques to their work.
Blalock Jones said it would have meant a lot back in the 1930s for Native artists to receive a commission from the government.
"At the time, art was a novelty in Oklahoma and there weren't very many artists. We're talking about full time, you know, professional-leaning, professional type artists," said Blalock Jones. "And for them to receive that, it was quite a thing for them."
These specific Oklahoma murals represented something else to the artists who painted them: a way of life that the U.S. Government was trying to suppress and outlaw.
Preserving Kiowa life
Robert Anquoe is also Kiowa and related to Mopope. His uncle, Kenneth Anquoe, who helped start the Tulsa Powwow and the Tulsa Indian Club, would often discuss with Mopope how to preserve Kiowa life.
"You got to think about it in the 20s and 30s during their era, you know, it was illegal to sing and dance and be Indian," Robert Anquoe said. "Those customs and traditions and the ceremonies — they were outlawed."
It wasn't until Congress passed the American Indian Religion Freedom Act in 1978 that Native people were allowed to practice their ceremonies and religion again openly.
That meant the depictions of eagle dancers, singers and people within the Native American church Mopope painted and even the formation of the Tulsa Powwow Club was illegal.
"It was illegal. But, you know, it was a matter of honor," Mopope’s granddaughter Jennings said of him depicting them in the mural.
"My grandma used to say, you can fight somebody every day. Just get ready…they're going to be ignorant tomorrow morning when they get up, and you're going to have to beat them up all over again," she said, referring to people within Mopope's own Kiowa community who didn't want some of the scenes depicted.
Talking to Vanessa is like getting an education in Kiowa history while looking at the paintings — the kind you're not going to get from a book. Jennings said the scenes of moving camp and buffalo hunting — it's something that not a lot of people can relate to now.
"What you're looking at modern Kiowas today, they can't explain to themselves or their grandchildren what these scenes are," said Jennings, speaking to some of the cultural erosion that's happened over the decades.
Anquoe and Jennings are glad those paintings are in the post office, even if the majority of people don't know what they're looking at.
"It's a preservation of a cultural tradition and those ceremonies. And so for me, I'm just thankful that they were able to do that. They were brave enough to do that," Anquoe said.