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Belmont’s oldest piece of public art is a treasure

Aug 23, 2019 10:49AM

This mural “Major William Chronicle and His South Fork Boys” inside Belmont city hall dates to 1940 and is the town’s first and oldest piece of public art. Photo by Alan Hodge

Alan Hodge•
Thu, Aug 22, 2019
Belmont has been making great strides in the area of public art, but there’s one piece that predates all the others by a wide margin.

Long before Belmont’s City Hall became the center of the town’s municipal government, it was a U.S. Post Office, constructed in 1938. In that building is a reminder of those days when the federal government’s New Deal was in full swing in the form of a mural entitled “Major William Chronicle and His South Fork Boys”.

Many thousands of people over the years have seen the mural, but not that many know about the artist, Peter DeAnna, who painted it, how he went about his work in Belmont in 1940, and the fact that the mural as folks see it today was not his first choice of theme. 

DeAnna was one of a small army of artists that the Works Projects Administration (WPA) sent out across the land during the Great Depression to create public art, perform music, and take photos of everything from poor folks to national park vistas. Overall, from 1934 to 1943, over 1,300 murals and 300 sculptures were commissioned by the federal government nationwide. Artwork for post offices was supposed to reflect the heritage or history of the town where it was located. Most of the post office murals were funded by the Section of Fine Arts under the Treasury Department. 

The Belmont Post Office mural was DeAnna’s first paying art job. A native of Uniontown, Penn., DeAnna had grown up in Washington, D.C., and received “formal” art training of sorts at the Washington Boys Club. A natural talent, DeAnna won first prize at a local art show at age sixteen for a work entitled “China Boy.” 

According to the book “New Deal Art in N.C.” by Anita Price Davis, DeAnna came to Belmont in June 1940 to start his project when he was just 19 years old. While he was in town, he wrote letters to WPA Art Administrator Edward Rowan describing what he was doing. “This past week I have been working from scaffold,” he penned. “The white lead adhesive has caught hold quite well. Work is slowly nearing completion. I am striving for more quality of paint texture. Also revising drawing in several places as you suggested. I assure you I am giving it the best in me.” 

The phrase “revising drawing in several places” is likely a reference to changes DeAnna was told to make to his original idea of having the mural show a Native American encampment with women tanning hides and hauling grain near a hut. 

The first plan also featured the Indian men planting corn with one brave holding a bow and standing with his bare backside turned towards the viewer. In the final painting as it appears today, the hut became a tent, and the Indians were transformed into the South Fork Boys lounging around a campfire in October 1780 prior to marching to Kings Mountain to take part in the upcoming battle there. The white horse in the current version is where the bare-backed bowman would have stood.

DeAnna was paid $730 for his labors in Belmont and went on to paint another mural in Maryland. When World War II came, he enlisted and served as a military artist. Later, he went to work for the Smithsonian Institution and painted many of the works seen in the National Air and Space Museum there. He retired in 1979 and died in 1980 at age 59 of cancer. 

DeAnna’s painting technique has been characterized as “ simple, calm, a little rough, but daringly old-fashioned. He also can be delicately precise when he wants to.” These words describe the Belmont painting quite well. In 2006, DeAnna’s work was freshened up at a cost of around $6,000- eight times what he was paid to do it in the first place.

More New Deal art in our area

• Gastonia, NC Post Office “Cotton Field and Spinning Mill” – oil on canvas by Francis Speight (1938). 

• Lincolnton, NC Post Office “Threshing Grain” – oil on canvas by Richard Jansen (1938). 

• Kings Mountain, NC “Battle of Kings Mountain” by Veronica Burkhard. This canvas was painted in 1941 with Treasury Section funding for the town’s post office. It was in city hall for a while and is now in the Kings Mountain Museum of History that provided the image (above).
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