July 23, 2008

They Sppread Their Wings on Walls

...a brief story of a few of the WPA muralists.

Sketch for ”Monhegan’s Landing,” water color and ink, Barse Miller.

Photographs and Photohosting: Please let me know if you see little red boxes instead of photographs. Thank you very much.

G: He’s really looking forward to Comic-Con. Got email from nephew and Niece so now know arrival time et al. She’s doing better. Board meeting tonight.

G’ette: Not happy with skirt waistline. Cleaned some house chaos. Class this morning.

Weather: Fog, more fog, then continuing fog until the sun comes out through the fog and the fog returns combined with increasing humidity through Comic-Con.

Menus: I tried Mr. SoCalFrank’s salad with Chicken, but something wasn’t right with the pre-cooked chicken. I couldn’t eat it. Salad was great, cake for desert.
Forward: History: Federal Emergency Relief Administration, (FERA), came first in 1933, then the Civil Works Administration, (CWA). Next the Public Works of Art Project, (PWAP). Its successor was “The Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture,” (Section) artists entered national or regional competitions and were paid a flat sum for their work.. And there was the Treasury Relief Arts Projects (TRAP), was also a Treasury project, but its focus was to provide relief to artists in need.. The Works Progress Agency (WPA) in 1933, had “Project Number One.” One of its four parts was called the Fine Art Project (FAP) which was called WPA/FAP.

Art Styles: At the start of the depression, artists in America had just begun to come into their own after rejecting European styles. American artists of the time worked in several main styles. The ‘Social Protest” style grew out of the struggles of the depression, and Regionalism, a realistic rounded style begun by Burchfield and Hopper spread enthusiastically through the schools into the mainstream. These two styles together were called American Scene. (Boswell, Modern American Painting, 63) There were Modernists, grouped mainly in New York, and though WPA/FAP artists everywhere were urged to paint only in the American Scene, rules were relaxed slightly in New York. There was another group of painters who clung to techniques and approaches from the past, they were called the Academic painters.

When the first WPA arts projects began, “artists remembered little artistic stricture….” although WPA/FAP supervisor Arthur McMahon remembers things differently. (McMahon 22) He writes that there were constant attacks on… “the project from anti-Roosevelt conservatives in Congress.” (McMahon 23) Appropriations were always in doubt. When the Dies Committee began to focus on Communism within the ranks of the artists, while they did manage to destroy the Federal Theater Project, they only caused the WPA/FAP to reorganize with far stricter guidelines. (McMahon 57)

The WPA/FAP was placed under state supervision. Relief quotas were cut… “which barely allowed employment of master muralists who headed the big projects (McMahon 57) among other things. Artists who lived in the country were now expected to barter for their food and clothing. City artists were followed by relief workers who acted like secret police. If an artist had been on a project for eighteen months, they were given a pink slip and told to get a job in the private sector. There were no jobs in the private sector. Picket lines formed. Grievance committees gathered. Artist’s unions attempted to keep jobs in existence. (Berman 17) Many artists were so focused on their work, they didn’t notice the turmoil.

“I find it difficult here…to convey the sense of hope, excitement, and enthusiasm that the early New Deal days inspired,” Olin Dows, one of the New Deal muralists wrote. (Dows, O’Connor 16) Because of this enthusiasm, mural supervisors had less trouble finding buildings and finding sponsors that would finance the supplies and the artists pay. This atmosphere continued while everyone approved the topic, the sketches, assistants were found…often easel artists pulled from their paintings to work as assistants, and work locations found whether in studios or on the job.

The WAP/FAP wanted to make sure the sponsors were pleased with the work, so there were constant conferences wherever the artists were working. Most artists didn’t mind as long as they were able to continue working. Some artists worked on site with an audience, other’s, like Max Spivak allowed children to paint along with him. Some like Edward Laning, moved his New York Library Murals from studio to studio until they were done with the conferences following along.

Laning was one of the most successful of the WAP/FAP muralists. The supervisor in charge of the New York WPA/FAP, put Lanning to work on a series of murals on Ellis Island when the initial artist walked off the job. After their success, he was given the prestigious New York Library Murals which he painted in the American Scene style. The library board member in charge of the murals was a stickler for details. “I hung on by my teeth,” Laning wrote of the experience. (Lanning, O’Connor 102 – 103) A currant description of the library by the author of The Midtown Book web page says, “The murals…are colorful, but uninspired and Lanning is not a major artist.” (Horsley1). During WWII, Laning worked as a Service Artist for Life Magazine and after the war returned to painting murals, teaching, and authored a book on fellow artist Reginald Marsh. (NY Times May 9, 1981) Laning’s work has been reevaluated in the last decades, and he is beginning to once again get the recognition he deserves.

Another muralist for the WPA/FAP was James Brooks. He painted Flight, a semi-abstract, dramatic, 235 foot long mural showing famous figures and important moments in flight at the Marine Air Terminal at La Guardia Airport. (Berman, O’Connor 164) Brooks went on to work as an Art Correspondent from 1943 through 1945. By the mid-fifties, the Port Authority called Flight old fashioned, perhaps seeing a left wing symbolism in the images, and had it painted over. After the war his “rhythmic compositions of abstract shapes,…brought acclaim from critics as well as several major prizes….the Carnegie International in 1956 and another from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1957. His work was shown in two of the most influential shows of the 1950’s, and a decade later, he was given a full-scale retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. After a great furor, the mural was restored in the 1980’s. (NY Times March 12, 1992) (Laning.org)

Other artists who focused only on the abstract had a hard time during these years. Each work had to be defended by the artists, unions, and the WPA/FAP. Arshile Gorky’s ten mural panels at Newark Air Port were the most famous of all the WPA works, and their destruction during WWII still hurts the arts community today. There were a few of the abstract works that slipped easily into New York society. (Laning, 102 -103) Stuart Davis painted Swing Landscapes, a color collage of machinery, (Berman 143) and Karl Knath did a delightful abstract piece in the nurses home oh Welfare Island, New York, (Browne, O’Connor, 234) but many were lost or destroyed during the war.

Sixteen percent of the artists of the WPA/FAP were black from a community where 50% were unemployed. If it had not been for the WPA, “…all would have been lost,” wrote Alain Locke in The Negro in Art. (Locke 16) These painters brought a legacy of the Harlem Renaissance to the WPA/FAP which included Primitivism and Atavism. In Creating Their Own Image, the first comprehensive book about African American woman artists, Harlem Mural Project painters, such as Selma Day, worked under supervisor Charles Alston in a collective project. They created murals depicting the day to day community life that included black history and folklore. (Farrington 97 -98) There were other major mural projects throughout the community most of which were destroyed after WWII.

At the Treasury, Edward Bruce, who was in charge of the “Section”, told the public that the design rested with the artist, but in truth he carefully supervised the works insisting they be “bland with local color.” (Marling 84) One of his painters, Barse Miller, had been a brilliant young artist with several prizes to his name, had taught at Chouinard School for the Arts, and helped form the style now called the California Watercolor School by the time he arrived at the Section. Miller didn’t do bland well, but he needed a job. He completed two strikingly different murals for the WPA before the war began. One of which, Apparition Over Los Angeles, 1932, shows the Four Square Church and its founder hovering over the city of Los Angeles. In 1942, Miller now a captain, headed the first official War Art Unit in the Pacific, and after the war returned, much changed, to teach and paint until his death in 1973. (http://www.sullivangoss.com/barse_Miller/)

World War II ended all of the arts relief efforts. As artists moved on to take war jobs, political pressure retired the WPA in 1942. The final projects were shut down in July of 1943 and once again artists began worrying about their own survival. (Berman 18) Beginning in the 1950’s, the critics began panning the New Deal Murals with words like “mediocre” and “terrible,” as well as with phrases such as, “The WPA …produced almost no art of any consequence that has survived.” By the 1980’s, their views were changing, (Berman 199) “perhaps allied to a widespread revival of realism.” (Berman 196)

Francis O’Conner took a survey of WPA artists in 1968, and 65% of them told him that they would never have continued as artists without the support of the WPA. O’Connor also reported that 80% of the New York WPA/FAP artists continued working in their fields after the end of the projects. (Berman 199) “It was our golden age,” Laning told O’Connor. (Laning 112) For until this time, American artists had usually worked alone. For the majority of Americans, “fine art did not exist,” now it did in their own communities. (Brown 64) Here now for the first time was a unique form of art that the public could identify with created by many differing kinds of artists working together for the first time. What ever sense of community and status the American artist feels today, he owes this to the New Deal Projects of the 1930’s. The sense of community that was created in these golden years continues today, and many feel that the “WAP/FAP is responsible for the present state of American Art. (Berman 200)


  1. i hope you're finding magazines, journals, somewhere, anywhere... to publish these!!!

  2. whenever i take a car trip, i pack the relevant wpa guide. ie, when we recently drove along the st lawrence, we had a road atlas from 2008 for the roads and a wpa guide for new york from 1937 . . . for the memory. am i nuts? am i alone in using these guides?


What a delight to get a note from you. Thanks for leaving one.


I thought these the most inventive costumes.   Sorry about the arm, but I never got a clear view. Scheduled to work at noon, ...