Hill Resident and Siblings Visit Oklahoma to See Historic Mural Painted by Their Mother

A Cedar Lane Way resident and her siblings recently made the pilgrimage to an Oklahoma post office to view a mural their mother painted 80 years ago for the first time.

“I’d never seen the mural before, but I have always known about it and wanted to see it,” Brigid Williams said. “This was the first time we managed to get together and go.”

Brigid visited the Poteau post office with her sister, Kitty of Manakin-Sabot Va., and their brothers, Nick Williams of Orcas Island, Wash., and Michael Williams of Millwood, Va., on Jan. 25 to see the mural that their mother, Joan Cunningham Williams, painted eight decades ago. The Williams children planned their visit to the Oklahoma post office for last month, since Joan’s birthday fell on Jan. 19. (She died in 1997 at age 81 in Charlottesville, Va.)

“We planned to make the trip as close as possible to our mother’s birthday,” Joan wrote. “She would have been 104 this year, and this was certainly the best birthday present possible. We knew the mural well from photographs we’d seen all our lives; we grew up very proud of our mother’s accomplishment.”

A graduate of Radcliffe College’s Class of 1936, Joan went on to study at the Art Student League of New York with painter and muralist Thomas Hart Benton and later worked with muralist Jean Charlot painting frescoes in Oklahoma, Ohio and New Jersey.

In 1940, Joan won a nationwide competition to match artists with post offices throughout the country, and her mural was subsequently commissioned through the WPA Federal Art Project – a New Deal program to fund visual arts in the U.S.

Joan was assigned the subject “Cotton,” so from her home in Rochester, N.Y., she painted a mural representing cotton farming near its height of production in the 1930s. She then drove the canvas to Poteau with her younger brother, Michael Cunningham, who not only was her model for some of the figures in the mural, but also helped her install it at the post office.

“It shows influence of American realism school, which was very involved in glorifying the American worker and the circumstances of lives of people across the country,” Brigid said of the mural, which depicts agricultural workers resting in the foreground as more workers appear in the distance gathering cotton. 

“It’s also very interesting to see the face of an African American in the foreground shown as equal with his fellow workers,” Brigid told this reporter.

Moreover, Brigid said the mural clearly conveys her mother’s appreciation for landscape.

“One thing I noticed being in Oklahoma for first time was how the fertile plains are edged by mountain ranges,” Brigid said, adding that her mother’s mural managed effectively to capture the Oklahoma terrain, even though Joan had never visited the state prior to its installation.

While the mural might resonate deeply with today’s audiences, it wasn’t well received upon its unveiling, as evidenced by two stories published in local newspapers at the time of its installation. But her children agree Joan, who was only 24 at the time, was likely unfazed by the critical response to her work.

“Apparently the reception of the mural was quite critical of its modernism,” Brigid wrote. “We agreed that would not have bothered our mother who was a rebel and a groundbreaker in her artistic style.”

Despite its storied past, the history and significance of the mural was widely unknown to the people of Poteau, including those working at the post office.

“I called the post office, and they said they had the mural, but they didn’t know anything about it,” Brigid said. “Part of the fun was telling them about it and my mother and what her career was.”

Not long after the installation of the mural, Joan abandoned her artistic pursuits to raise her family as the wife of a diplomat, however.             “She painted it in 1939-40, long before we were born,” Brigid wrote. “She did consider herself an artist and painted professionally until her growing family and

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