New Deal-era mural painting, Polk Annex to undergo renovations

By James Saxton
Special to the Times

There’s a priceless mural painted on a wall of the Polk Annex building on the McDonough Square, and unless you’ve lived in Henry County for decades, chances are you’ve never seen it.

In this file photo of the 1942 mural painting “Cotton Gin Mill” by the late modernist artist Jean Charlot, a 4-foot-6-inch by 11-foot oil-on-canvas mural depicts the weighing and loading of bales of cotton at a cotton gin. The mural will be cleaned, touched up and re-varnished on its wall inside the Polk Annex. File photo

That could change in coming months and years as the City of McDonough has big plans for the currently unused Polk Annex and its mural.

At its organizational meeting Thursday, the McDonough City Council voted unanimously to approve a measure to have a 1942 mural painting, “Cotton Gin Mill” by modernist artist Louis Henri Jean Charlot cleaned, repaired and treated inside the Polk Annex for $6,930.

The Atlanta Art Conservation Center, a nonprofit subsidiary of the Williamstown Art Conservation Center and partner of the High Museum of Atlanta, was hired by the city to do conservation work on the painting.

“We’ll be cleaning it,” said Larry Shutts, conservator of paintings, “and doing a few minor touch ups in very small areas of damage, and putting a fresh coat of varnish on it, which should prepare it for another 40 or 50 years of display without any further need for intervention.”

Conservation work, paid for by SPLOST IV funds, will begin in early May, Shutts said, and take about a week to complete. Shutts said he will use power scaffolding to work on the mural, which is about 8-9 feet off the floor, just above an interior doorway and twin bulletin boards.

“Paintings that are done somewhat high on the wall have often thankfully been spared damage,” he said, “so it’s in really pretty good condition, particularly for its age. It’s ready for a little sprucing up.”

The Polk Annex, which the city recently acquired from the county in trade for the old McDonough city hall, opened in 1942 as the McDonough Post Office. Its postmaster, Wilmer W. Turner, was successful in getting the federal government to commission an artist to paint a mural of a cotton gin on the wall of its new post office in a works project as part of the recovery process after the Great Depression.

The mural is one of 200,000 government-commissioned works which were funded during the Great Depression era under the Federal Art Project, whose goals were to employ out-of-work artists and to provide art for non-federal government buildings.

The initiative, part of a series of experimental projects signed by then-president Franklin Roosevelt and known collectively as the New Deal, operated from August 1935 until June 1943. Artists created posters, murals, and paintings, with some works being called by the National Museum of Art “remaining among the nation’s most significant pieces of public art.”

Born in Paris to a Russian-born import-export businessman father and Mexican-born artist mother, Jean Charlot was intrigued from an early age by the work of common laborers. As a teenager he learned the Aztec language of his mother’s ancestors, studied art in Paris and soon served in the French Army in World War I. When his father died in 1921, he and his mother moved to Mexico City, where his murals attracted great notice. In 1931, Charlot moved to New York City to prepare solo exhibits for a noted gallery there. In 1940, he was accorded American citizenship.

In 1941 Charlot was named artist-in-resident at the University of Georgia in Athens. The following year he was selected to create the work for the McDonough post office. The 42-year-old said in his journal, published in part in a 1945 book by the University of Georgia Press, Charlot Murals of Georgia, that he was inspired by cotton laborers he met in Henry County while driving in October 1941 from Athens to McDonough.

A week later Charlot saw a cotton gin for the first time, sketched its buildings and instruments, and prepared for the project, which he began in January 1942, finishing its final varnishing layer in May. “The Cotton Gin Mill,” a 4-foot-6-inch by 11-foot oil-on-canvas mural, depicts the weighing and loading of bales of cotton at a cotton gin.

“That painting is a focal point,” said McDonough Mayor Billy Copeland. “It means so much to us. It’s part of McDonough’s history, and it gives us a glimpse of McDonough’s history. It’s a priceless thing.”

“Over the course of my career,” Shutts said, “I’ve done many of this type of painting, government installations essentially, in these types of buildings, post offices, federal buildings and the like. I’m very familiar with the period, very familiar with the genre, and (this Charlot mural) ranks up there with the quality of work done in this period. It’s a very nice piece.”

Back on campus, over the following two years, Charlot would also paint on the exterior of the university’s Fine Arts Building a 9-foot by 46-foot fresco and three 11-foot by 6-foot frescoes in the Journalism School Building. He would return to Mexico in 1945 to continue his work as one of the founders of Mexican muralism, then to Colorado Springs, Colo., in 1947, and in 1949 to teach at the University of Hawaii, where he stayed for 30 years. He died there in 1979, and today has an avid following among art historians.

And though Charlot’s mural is behind locked doors in an unused building today, Mayor Copeland said big changes are in the plans for the Polk Annex, at the corner of John Frank Ward Boulevard and Lawrenceville Street. “Renovations are in (City Administrator) Keith (Dicker-son)’s office,” Copeland said. “We want to have that a community place, a showcase so that one can hit a button and learn about this building or that attraction. It’s our focal point for tourism.”

And while the mayor said full plans are incomplete, he added, “Originally, I wanted to have a city museum, but instead that may be something we do online; there’s a difference of opinion on that. Still, the first floor, when it’s complete, I think you’re going to find attractive. Plus, I want there to be in that (Polk) building an office for the McDonough Arts. With all the changes, it’s going to be nice, real nice.”

The city is consulting an expert on museum planning, Mark Walhimer, managing partner of Museum Planning LLC, with offices in San Francisco, New York and Mexico City. Walhimer, author of the book Museums 101, said he’ll review the Polk Annex with city planners later this month.

“My background is in exhibition design,” Walhimer said. “I’ve been asked to look at the humidity control, the air conditioning system, and make sure the conditions are correct in the building.”

The Charlot mural is in great shape and is of contemporary style, he said. “In fact, if somebody hadn’t told me differently, I would have thought it was painted 20 years ago. Even some of the clothing looks contemporary.”

It is the artist’s eye for detail and talent in presentation that wows Walhimer about this mural, he said. “Jean Charlot moved around a lot, he lived in many places. For me the thing that makes him special is he can capture the energy of a given place, then put that up on the wall. You know, he makes that cotton gin come to life.”