Long-lost artwork from Modesto's downtown post office returned

By J.N. Sbranti
jnsbranti@com

September 19, 2011 

After being missing for more than 40 years, two historically significant murals from downtown Modesto's post office have been found.

The coveted artwork, created by a Depression-era public works program, has been turned over to the investment group that's buying that now-closed federal building.

"It's so extraordinary that we were able to get these murals back," said Peter Janopaul III, whose Finch Fund agreed to pay $1.02 million for the vacant building. "We found them locally, intact and in great shape."

One of the murals, done in 1936 under the supervision of artist Ray Boynton, shows peaches being picked and packed in wooden boxes. The other shows water pouring from a large hand, flowing into a river flanked by a miner panning for gold on one side and a farmer planting treeson the other.

"The symbolism is really naked in this," Janopaul said. "It's the perfect metaphor: The hand of God delivering water to the valley."

Fate's hand played a role in getting the murals returned to the community.

A Bee story last month about the building's sale mentioned that a set of agriculture-theme murals had graced the lobby since the mid-1930s. The story mentioned that several other murals from the group were missing.

Rick Correia of Stockton read that Bee story online, and it triggered a memory.

"Geez, that sounds really familiar," Correia recalled thinking. He knew some large murals had been stored for decades on his family's Stanislaus County property. "They've basically been in a shed next to an old washer and dryer for at least 40 years."

Removed amid 1960s remodeling

Correia said his brother-in-law, John Bretton, was an architect who oversaw remodeling of the Modesto post office during the mid-1960. Several of the Boynton murals were removed during that project.

Correia said the contractor doing that job considered the murals to be salvage, and he asked Bretton whether he wanted to buy any of them.

"John mentioned there were maybe seven to choose from, and he picked the two he liked best," Correia said.

Bretton and his wife, the late Jane Correia Bretton, had intended to display them, but they didn't have a place large enough for the 4-foot-by-8-foot murals. Then, in the early 1970s, the couple moved to San Diego and the artwork went into the shed.

After reading the story, Correia contacted Bretton, who agreed to donate the murals back to Modesto.

"John is very happy the murals will be going back into the post office," Correia said. "It is so nice to know something good will come of this."

Janopaul said the art will be professionally restored, then displayed beside the other murals as part of the building's restoration.

"This fellow who bought and kept the murals deserves our thanks!" stressed Barbara Bernstein for New Deal Art Registry, an organization dedicated to preserving public art created during the 1930s and 1940s. "Many post office murals were just destroyed or thrown away, but thanks to him the public now has these back."

When federal buildings were remodeled during the 1950s and 1960s, Bernstein said, "A lot of art was lost through sheer ignorance because many people didn't think it was worth saving."

Commissioned by U.S. Treasury

Bernstein said the Modesto murals were commissioned by the U.S. Treasury, which funded art projects during the Great Depression.

"Ray Boynton is a significant figure in California art history," Bernstein said. Boynton (1883-1951) taught art at the University of California at Berkeley, and his mural "Animal Force and Machine Force" is in San Francisco's Coit Tower.

Bernstein said Boynton was "the dean of the fresco painters" and a mentor to younger artists. He supervised the artists who painted the Modesto scenes, using tempera on plywood to create arch-shaped lunettes.

"The murals in the Modesto post office are very fine examples of what the Treasury Section of Fine Arts set out to do: not just provide jobs for artists, but bring original and accessible art to cities and towns of all sizes," Bernstein explained. "They put these murals in public places where people went as part of their daily life, (rather than in places that were) formal or intimidating like a museum."

Artwork celebrates the region

Bernstein said, "The Modesto murals celebrate the region they were created for — local industry and agriculture, recognizable locations, people who look like you and me doing familiar things — all on a heroic scale. New Deal murals are a memento of a more idealistic time. The Modesto post office is a real treasure trove, and it's great news that two of the lost murals have been recovered."

Six of the arch-shaped murals and one larger rectangular mural remain in the now-closed building at 1125 I St. It is believed six others were removed during remodeling projects.

Modesto history and art enthusiasts are thrilled two of the "lost" murals will be returned to their original home.

"This is so exciting. We've long wondered where they were," said Grace Lieberman, chief of the Stanislaus Arts Council. "They're beautiful works of art. They're important because of the era they were done in and the natural art style."

Local historian Colleen Stanley Bare said the murals "have importance to people interested in Modesto's history and art." She thinks many people will want to see them, now that they've been found.

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jnsbranti@modbee.com or 578-2196.

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