Olga Mohr’s mural, Cherokee Farming and Animal Husbandry,is unique among the Section of Painting and Sculpture murals that depict the American Indian. The artist avoided stereotypical representations associated with the “Noble” and “Ignoble Savage,” and the myth of the vanishing Indian. She also did not elect to paint a scene from history, as so many Section artists did; instead, Mohr’s depiction of the Oklahoma Cherokee. The image is devoid of cultural identifiers such as tribal dress or regalia, and is stylistically more closely associated with the Regionalism of Thomas Hart Benton than George Catlin, the nineteenth century painter of Indians. In fact, in some ways the subject matter, is more closely related to self-representation in Indigenous paintings by Oklahoma Native American artists Acee Blue Eagle (Pawnee/Muscogee-Creek), and Solomon McCombs (Muscogee-Creek), who also depicted Native American genre scenes for their own post office mural commissions.1
Olga Mohr was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1905, but was raised in Oklahoma. She studied art there before moving onto the Art Academy of Cincinnati, Ohio, where she met and married fellow artist Richard Zoellner. By 1937, Mohr was in charge of the Federal Art Project for the Cincinnati Public Schools, and, in that same year, completed a mural depicting scenes from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker for the lunchroom at Linwood Elementary School.2 Although the Nutcracker mural has been painted over, the mural installed in the Stilwell post office remains in its original location.
Mohr was officially invited to submit sketches for the Stilwell post office on June 14, 1941; although, there was some confusion regarding her submission of sketches for the competition to award in Okemah, Oklahoma post office commission intended to be open only to Native American artists. However, in a letter from Mohr to Section Assistant Chief, Edward Rowan, the artist explained the confusion and her enthusiasm for the project.
“Now as to my eligibility, I was brought up in Oklahoma, attended college there. So I am familiar with Oklahoma and its history. When this competition was announced, I was very interested and began designing. Only later I noticed that the eligibility on the folder from Prof. Jacobson read Indian artists. Then – since the Section Bulletin and American Magazine of Art did not say Indian, I thought it might be construed to mean one who paints Indians. Anyway, I was too interested to stop.”3
Olga Mohr’s desire to participate in the Treasury Department’s art program paid off, and the resulting mural both aesthetically and topically interesting.
Mohr’s composition and use of colors creates a mural both simplistic in design, and visually interesting. The foreground is dominated by three Cherokee Indians, going about their daily chores of feeding chickens, tending to the garden, and taming a horse. Despite their close proximity to one another, each figure creates a vignette on its own. The landscape depicts the rolling hills of eastern Oklahoma at the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, but Mohr elected to paint the figures standing in a field painted in burnt sienna, possibly an indication of the red soil commonly found throughout the state.
Despite the mundane activities of the figures in the painting, Mohr managed to create a scene filled with action. On the left side of the composition, a Cherokee woman in a white dress stands in stark contrast to the red soil and colorful rooster at her feet. By depicting her gathering her skirt in her left hand, and her extended right hand feeding the chickens, she is an active participant in the scene. Much in the same vain, the male figure on the right side of the painting is hoeing the ground, his shoulders nearly enveloped by the cornstalks behind him.
The primary action in the painting is created by the man taming the horse. His feet firmly planted, steadily holds the reins as the horse rears back on its hind legs, its front hooves stretching toward the corn. The corn tassels and the horse’s blond mane are motion-repeating patterns. The man’s red shirt and green trousers reflect the colors of the landscape, contrasting with both the horse and the white clad figures to his right and left. Mohr cleverly used color and composition to draw the viewer’s eye toward the scene’s most dramatic action.
Like many of the Section artists, Mohr made the trip from Ohio to Oklahoma to visit the town and meet with the postmaster. This was a particular relief to Edward Rowan, who had become increasingly concerned how Indians were represented in Oklahoma murals after recent protests over the mural by Edith Mahier, installed in Watonga, Oklahoma.4 Even after Mohr visited Stilwell, Rowan again emphasized his concern of accurately depicting the Cherokee Indians in eastern Oklahoma. In a letter dated July 23, 1941 he wrote, “The types of faces which you will use will of course be determined by the Indians of the region whom you have just visited.”5 In an effort to reassure Rowan, Mohr wrote the assistant chief, noting that, during her visit to Stilwell, “I was given excellent help in gathering together photographs of Cherokee features which under the circumstances must be as accurate as possible.”6
Despite Rowan’s concerns, the mural was installed without controversy, and satisfaction with Mohr’s works was confirmed in a letter from Stilwell postmaster, B.R. Jones. “The mural painting by Miss Olga Mohr has been satisfactorily installed. The colors of the painting blend with the woodwork and the interior paint, adding to the attraction and beauty of the Post Office lobby. Comments from patrons is that it is very satisfactory for the region.” Olga Mohr’s mural was successful not only for its aesthetics but also for her depiction of the Cherokee Indians participating in the routine task of daily life, rather than in a romanticized past.
By Denise Neil-Binion (Delaware/Cherokee Nation)
PhD Candidate, Native American Art History, University of Oklahoma
2016 Smithsonian Fellow and awarded an NPM Scholarship
1) Acee Blue Eagle painted murals for the post offices in Coalgate and Seminole, Oklahoma, and Solomon McCombs painting was installed in the post office in Marietta, Oklahoma.
2) Beverly J. Rosenthal, The New Deal Art Projects in Cincinnati,” MA Thesis, University of Cincinnati, 1993, 31-32.
3) Olga Mohr to Edward Rowan, May 31, 1941.
4) Edward Rowan to Olga Mohr, June 20, 1941.
5) Edward Rowan to Olga Mohr, July 23, 1941.
6) Olga Mohr to Edward Rowan, no date.