Because of their size, public murals tend not to be simply decorative but informative, often focusing on the historical background of an area or representative of the interests of the community. The art form was most common during the Great Depression (1930–41), but contemporary projects indicate a recurring interest in community murals. Some of these more modern works have been created by professional artists, but the popularity of murals extends to the often charming or unusual projects of local citizens or children.
An example of early mural art in Mississippi is displayed in the DeSoto County Courthouse. In 1902 artist Newton Alonzo Wells completed a series of murals depicting the journey of explorer Hernando de Soto for the Gayoso Hotel in Memphis. The murals were acquired in 1948 by Fred Goldsmith of Goldsmiths Department Store. In 1953 they were donated to DeSoto County and put on display in the courthouse. Legend has it that the courthouse marks de Soto’s campsite on the evening before he discovered the Mississippi River, making the donation particularly appropriate.
Other early historical murals include three panels commissioned by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and executed by New Orleans artist Alexander Alaux. They were originally designed for the Hall of History in the New Capitol but have ended up in the Old Capitol Museum. Titles include The Discovery of the Mississippi by Hernando de Soto, The Departure of Governor W. C. C. Claiborne and General James Wilkenson from Fort Adams Mississippi on December 10, 1803 for New Orleans to Receive the Louisiana Purchase from France, and Jefferson Davis at the Battle of Buena Vista.
In Mississippi as in most of the United States, murals were not widespread until the late 1930s and early 1940s. This resurgence was partially inspired by the Mexican government’s support of muralists such as Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Orozco, although it was also influenced by the success of American Regionalists such as John Stuart Curry and Thomas Hart Benton.
In 1931 federally supported art in America became a reality through the public art programs of the New Deal. Three government-sponsored programs commissioned a number of public murals. The Public Works Art Program and Federal Arts Program were responsible for artworks in public buildings—libraries, courthouses, hospitals, schools, and community centers. These were not necessarily murals but included sculptures, bas-reliefs, and other forms of public art. The Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts was responsible for artworks in post offices across the United States. Thirty-one murals were proposed for Mississippi post offices, though those in Poplarville, Charleston, and Meridian were never executed, and those in Okolona and Indianola have been painted over. Surviving murals include those in Amory, Batesville, Bay St. Louis, Booneville, Carthage, Columbus, Crystal Springs, Durant, Eupora, Forest, Hazlehurst, Jackson, Leland, Louisville, Macon, Magnolia, New Albany, Newton, Pascagoula, Picayune, Pontotoc, Ripley, Tylerville, and Vicksburg. Most are in good condition and feature themes of cotton, farming, industry, local historical events, and community life in general.
The old Greenwood Leflore Library is currently being renovated, but it houses two Federal Art Project murals by local artist Lalla Walker Lewis. Other, more famous Works Progress Administration murals include those of Walter Inglis Anderson at Ocean Springs High School. The theme of the murals is historical, and Anderson’s stylized figures act out the early history of Mississippi. Anderson created other community-sponsored murals during the 1950s in the Ocean Springs Community Center. Themes include animals and the life of the Gulf Coast. These colorful designs were not immediately popular, but today they coexist in the Walter Anderson Museum of Art along with the wall paintings found in Anderson’s cottage after his death.
Ocean Springs boasts several additional murals. Anderson’s grandson, Chris Steble, created Past, Present, and Future near Washington Avenue, and Stig Markenson painted another mural on Government Street. The current Ocean Springs Community Center is decorated with a mosaic mural by Elizabeth Veglia, while several other large mosaics by the same artist are located in downtown Gulfport and at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art.
Nearby Bay St. Louis has one of the most interesting church murals in Mississippi. St. Rose de Lima, a traditionally African American Catholic church, features Auseklis Ozols’s mural, Christ in the Oaks, which depicts a black Christ. The downtown boasts six contemporary murals by local artists depicting scenes of the bay and local history, while the Hancock County Library has another mural by Veglia.
Other communities with contemporary murals based on local history are Newton, Leland, Tutwiler, and Vicksburg. In Vicksburg, a series of thirty-two realistic murals by Louisiana artist Robert Dafford decorate the floodwall. Mural topics for the Vicksburg project include scenes of the river, early industry, a legendary Mississippi bear hunt by Teddy Roosevelt, and downtown at the beginning of the twentieth century. Community projects also include murals produced in schools and libraries by children and others. Joseph Barras of Van Winkle created bas-relief murals for several schools in the Jackson area. Many schools have invited local artists or paid an artist in residence to work in the school and guide production of murals.
Similarly, many libraries have created murals in their children’s areas or reading rooms. Among them are the Pike-Amite-Walthall Library in McComb, Pontotoc County Library, Starkville Public Library, Ocean Springs Municipal Library, Bay St. Louis–Hancock Library, and Union County Library. At the Library of Hattiesburg, Petal, and Forrest County, William Baggett, longtime art professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, created a fifteen-hundred-square-foot mural painted on metal that depicts the evolution of the community. It includes images of Native Americans and early Mississippi history as well as the segregated school classrooms of the 1960s and the teachers and students of today.
- Sue B. Beckham, Depression Post Office Murals and Southern Culture: A Gentle Reconstruction (1989)
- Patti C. Black, Art in Mississippi, 1720–1980 (1998)
- Randolph Delehanty, Art in the American South: Works from the Ogden Collection (1996)
- Lisa N. Howorth, The South: A Treasury of Art and Literature (1993)