Paintings in the post office: A forgotten New Deal initiative

  • Carlos Lopez (left) works with a student on the shores of Green Lake.

In times of national crisis, we often look to our leaders for guidance, assistance, and relief. Over the centuries, dozens of leaders have launched ambitious plans to help their nations bounce back from disease, natural disaster, and war.

While most relief efforts focus on economy and infrastructure, Franklin Delano Roosevelt recognized the importance of restoring the American spirit after the Great Depression. As New Deal construction teams built post offices, the nation’s finest sculptors and painters followed, crafting murals and statues to beautify each building.

F. Carlos Lopez was one of those artists. Born in Cuba and raised in Spain, Lopez immigrated to the United States at the age of 11. He soon showed great talent in oil and watercolor painting, going on to study at the Detroit Art Academy and Art Institute of Chicago. After winning several prestigious regional awards, Lopez was commissioned by the federal government to paint four murals for post offices in Michigan and Illinois.

In the summer of 1939, Lopez took a break from mural-painting to serve as one of the first visual arts instructors at the National Music Camp. Though an experienced educator, Lopez found that Interlochen students were different from those he had taught art schools: All had come to the Camp to study music, and many had never lifted a paintbrush before enrolling in Lopez’s class.

By the end of the summer, Lopez had become an integral part of the Camp’s community. He took his students on three sketching trips per week, encouraging them to explore the beauty of northern Michigan through their brushes and pencils. Lopez and his students also painted sets for the drama department’s weekly productions. Lopez even encouraged many of his students to submit their work to the Michigan Artists’ Exhibition. Returning to the Camp in 1940, he continued to endear himself to students and colleagues.

Other professional commitments kept Lopez from returning to Camp in 1941: He was hired to complete a number of high-profile projects, including a mural for the Recorder of Deeds building in Washington, D.C., a pictorial record of World War II for the War Department, and battlefield correspondence for LIFE Magazine. In 1945, Lopez accepted a position as a professor at the University of Michigan. Sadly, he passed away of a pulmonary embolism eight years later, at the age of 44.

After his death, Lopez’s work was largely forgotten. However, in recent years, his work has resurfaced thanks to a 2016 exhibition of his work at Valparaiso University curated by artist and art historian George Vargas. His murals remain his most visible works, and can still be seen in post offices in Dwight, Illinois and the Michigan towns of Paw Paw, Birmingham, and Plymouth.

Though Lopez spent only two summers in the Interlochen community, his work paved the way for continued and expanded visual arts study at the Camp and later, the Academy. Today, the Visual Arts division continues Lopez’s legacy of collaboration and civic engagement, particularly through new programs in citizen artistry. Following in Lopez’s footsteps, visual arts students have painted murals around the Traverse City area, including a colorful backdrop for the Great Lakes Children’s Museum’s “Mighty Mac” exhibit and a depiction of Michigan’s flora and fauna for the tunnel that connects the Cowell Family Cancer Center to Munson Medical Center. Visual arts students also maintain his eagerness to collaborate through innovative interdisciplinary projects such as RESOLVE and “One.”

Lopez’s love of beauty in its diverse forms echoes in his motto for his students, a motto that continues to resonate with the multidisciplinary institution he helped pioneer: “Whatever is done beautifully with the hands—however simple—is a work of art.”