Retired teacher searches for art in post offices

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When she retired from teaching in 1992, Mary Emma Thompson of Westfield took on a new challenge: searching out, researching and photographing art in Illinois post offices. She was inspired by a presentation at a leadership conference.

“A social studies teacher from Virginia was doing a project on post office art and asking people to take pictures of post offices near them,” Thompson said. “I took pictures in three post offices and decided I wanted to see it all.”

During the Great Depression, the federal government commissioned artists to paint murals in post offices.

“They held competitions and awarded commissions on the basis of the quality of the art,” Thompson said. “They didn’t hold one for every post office, but they would hold one and from the people that submitted work, they would assign them to different post offices.”

As she explored post offices, Thompson said she was moved to share what she found with others. She did so, first with presentations and eventually with a series of books.

“One year, in March, when they were talking about Lincoln and looking for Lincoln, I woke up one night and thought ‘Looking for Lincoln in Post Offices,’ so that led to my writing my first four books,” Thompson said. “While I was working on that book, I thought I could do a whole series of them.”

Several of Thompson’s books are available for purchase online.

Although she has visited every known post office mural in Illinois, Thompson said she has a hard time picking a favorite.

“Maybe the one I’m looking at at the time … because there are so many of them,” Thompson said with a chuckle. “There are some I like better than others, but most any of them, if I’m looking at them at the time, it’s my favorite.”

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