Post office janitor withholds personal stamp of approval Suddenly, he finds old mural offensive

August 10, 1993|By Chicago Tribune

OGLESBY, Ill. -- Janitor John Swartz looks at the painting high on the wall of the post office lobby here and he sees "the buttocks and uncircumcised male genitalia" of a prostrate Potawatomi.

His art foe, Aloysius Piecha, sees "a coupla butts, no big deal."

And so goes the postal-porn war in Oglesby, about 130 miles southwest of Chicago, where the custodian's cries of obscenity have resulted in the cover-up of a 51-year-old post office mural.

The cover-up, in turn, has stirred righteous indignation among local art lovers and others in this La Salle County town of 3,500.

"People are upset that something is going to happen to art everywhere if this is allowed to happen here," said Mr. Piecha, 63, a former city commissioner.

The roots of this brouhaha date back to the Depression, when thousands of unemployed artists were put to work by a government plan to provide jobs and create public art. It was known as the Federal Art Project. Schools, museums, zoos, libraries, courthouses and city halls were decorated with paintings, murals, sculptures and carvings.

Under a related program run by the U.S. Treasury Department, an estimated 1,300 community post offices across the country also were blessed with art, most of it murals by artists from the home state, said George Mavigliano, an art history professor at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale who has written two books on Depression art.

Dr. Mavigliano said that generally the murals are not considered great great art, but that they are treasured for their historic value.

"This has to be protected for future generations," Mr. Piecha said of his town's postal art. "It's like the American flag."

On Feb. 28, 1941, Chicago artist Fay Davis, then 25, was granted a $700 commission to do the 13-by-7-foot Oglesby mural. Local lore has it that the artist made several trips to Starved Rock State Park a few miles outside town in search of inspiration for the mural, titled "Illini and Potawatomies Struggle at Starved Rock."

Rendered in earth tones, the painting depicts 14 Indians in pitched battle. Some are on horseback. Some are on foot. Most are either buck naked or scantily clad in leafy G-strings.

The mural was unveiled in 1942 and remained unveiled until just a few weeks ago, when it was covered because of the custodian's complaint that its "pornographic" depiction of Indians constituted sexual harassment and violated his civil rights to mop up without being mooned.

Before Mr. Swartz's complaint, there is no record or recent memory of anyone being offended by the mural, said Oglesby Postmaster Roger Mahnich, who noted, "Most people didn't even realize it was up there."

Mr. Piecha, who has taken the point in defending the mural, said no one he knows can see what has Mr. Swartz so offended. "Some guy complains about an uncircumcised Indian in the painting and calls it embarrassing. . . . I've never seen it, but then, whenever I go to the post office I'm not looking for uncircumcised Indians, I'm looking for the mail."

Until an $8,000 renovation was done in 1988, the painting had faded so badly that the mural was hardly visible, gaining less attention than the FBI's most-wanted posters nearby.

But the 40-year-old Mr. Swartz, who has been post office custodian for nine years, came to view the mural in a new light after the renovation.

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