New Documentary on WPA Artist, Tyrus Wong

Pioneer and artist Tyrus Wong

Pioneer and artist Tyrus Wong
“Good thing we had the WPA, because otherwise a lot of artists would’ve starved to death.”

A film honoring the 105–year old artist Tyrus Wong recently premiered at the Castro Theater in San Francisco. Tyrus attended! “Good thing we had the WPA, because otherwise a lot of artists would’ve starved to death,” says Tyrus in the just released film.

From his early artistic work with Works Progress Administration (WPA) Tyrus went on to become the creative force behind the Walt Disney film, Bambi, and later, the classic Rebel Without a Cause. He designed sets and storyboards for Hollywood studios. His artistic work spanned greeting cards and popular pottery designs and, later in life, intricate and colorful Chinese kites. He once exhibited with Picasso.

Directed by Pamela Tom, the film begins with Tyrus’s emigration from China at age 9—he never saw his mother again. When he arrived in the U.S. he was detained for months at the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay.

Support from his father enabled Tyrus to pursue his talent. Teachers at the well-known Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles further encouraged him, as did other WPA artists like Benji Okubo and Hideo Date. Tyrus produced watercolors, lithographs and murals for the Federal Art Project. As he tells it, his success was based on “luck and hard work.” His wife, Ruth, and their three daughters, also featured in the film, attest to Tyrus working late into the night.

Tyrus’s dedication to his art and soulful approach to life and family shine through in the film. His story is another example of a young artist nurtured by the WPA at critical period in their career. Watch for a screening in your area – http://tyruswongthemovie.com/screenings/.

A “New Deal” Romance

Elizabeth and Eugene Kingman Mesa Verde, 1938

Eugene and Elizabeth
Elizabeth and Eugene Kingman Mesa Verde, 1938

The photograph of my parents, Gene and Betty Kingman, taken amidst the natural wonders of Mesa Verde National Park, foretells a love story that lasted 39 years.

My dad, Eugene Kingman, was a prolific artist drawn to the beauty of the American West. During the Great Depression he travelled from his home in Providence, Rhode Island, to capture on canvas the scenic treasures of the national parks.

My mom, Elizabeth Yelm, was a ranger and museum assistant at Mesa Verde at a time when few women worked for the National Park Service. Mom absolutely loved her job and I am ever proud of her for applying again and again until she finally landed it!

She was a bright, strong-minded woman who received a scholarship to study Anthropology at the University of Denver. She appeared in “Who’s Who” as one of the first women there to earn a Master’s degree.

Eugene Kingman painting plein air in the Sierra

New Deal Plein Air Artist
Eugene Kingman painting plein air in the Sierra

Mom and Dad met on one of her guided tours of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. According to Mom, it was her storytelling around the campfire that led Dad to fall in love with her. When she resigned from her ranger job a year later to marry him, all of her park colleagues (mostly men) signed her ranger hat.

Over the years Mom and Dad forged an exceptionally strong partnership. Mom valued immensely Dad’s artwork and kept a record of every painting, lithograph, and mural he created, as well as his designs for museum exhibits—his specialty.

Dad earned degrees in Fine Arts and Geology at Yale that combined with a fascination with the national parks, led to some extraordinary assignments. Horace Albright, the first director of the National Park Service, commissioned him to paint seven of the most popular national parks—Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Crater Lake, Sequoia, Grand Teton, and Mt. Rainier—for the 1931 Paris Expo. Dad’s spectacular plein air oil paintings of Old Faithful and Grand Teton are part of the permanent collection at the National Park Service headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Kemmerer Wyoming Post Office mural by Eugene Kingman

"Cretaceous Landscape" Mural
Kemmerer Wyoming Post Office mural by Eugene Kingman

Improving national parks and promoting tourism were among the New Deal’s efforts to grow the economy. In March 1937, The National Geographic published thirteen of Dad’s Yosemite and Crater Lake paintings to illustrate an article on how these parks evolved geologically over millennia.

During the New Deal, Dad was awarded commissions for post office murals in Kemmerer, Wyoming; Hyattsville, Maryland; and East Providence, Rhode Island.

After serving as a cartographer in WWII, he became the director of the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska, and stayed for 22 years. He then got hired as Director of Exhibit Design and Curator of Art at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, where he passed away in 1975.

Mesa Verde, Eugene Kingman

1938 Lithograph
Mesa Verde, Eugene Kingman

After Dad died, my mom moved to Santa Fe. She worked with archeological scholars at the School of American Research well into her 80s.

Whenever I look at the cherished photo of my parents at Mesa Verde, I conjure up the campfire that sparked my parents’ lifelong romance. I’m not sure why Mom isn’t wearing her ranger hat in the picture. That hat meant a lot to her. In fact, I wore it during her memorial service in 2005 when we sang one of Mom’s favorite tunes: “Happy Trails to You.”

Book Review: Democratic Art: The New Deal’s Influence on American Culture, 280 pp

Democratic ArtDuring the Great Depression, FDR’s administration allocated $27 million ($469 million in 2015 dollars) to art projects sponsored by the Works Progress Administration, putting some forty thousand unemployed artists of all stripes to work. Sharon Ann Musher’s Democratic Art: The New Deal’s Influence on American Culture is the first study to bring together the range of works fostered through government patronage (known collectively as Federal One), the relationship between artists and audiences, and the bitter opposition to the program from a welter of critics.

Many perspectives informed artistic production and its support during this era. Musher devotes chapters to four distinct, occasionally overlapping philosophies—art to “inspire,” “enrich,” “promote social and political ideas,” and “encourage healthy and productive activities.” Each examines the political and cultural legacies from which these ideals emerged and provides detailed case studies of how they were implemented and received.

Musher suggests the ways in which art responded to the Depression—how, for instance, the seemingly quaint murals associated with the era imagined a national legacy antithetical to self-interest and economic striving. Often, Federal One art told a story of perseverance as a national inheritance. But it could be more precisely topical, as artists incorporated contemporaneous labor struggles into their work.  And it worked both ways: Art also influenced grassroots politics. Advocates of housing reform, for instance, frequently cited the wildly popular play, One-Third of a Nation, detailing the travails of tenement living.

Musher’s use of oral histories and never-exhibited images reveal oft-ignored limitations of the New Deal’s civic spirit. The very forces that propelled organizers of Federal One projects—especially larger ones, like photography exhibits—also reined them in. In order to maintain funding or appeal to the broadest number of citizens, they often excised images or stories that challenged prevailing views of race and gender.

Often disparaged—whether by art critics who feared that public patronage created mediocrity or by Republicans who denounced the communitarian images in these works—Federal One collapsed by the late 1930s as resources were diverted to the  “Arsenal of Democracy” and Southern Democrats abandoned their party loyalty amid fears of liberal subversion. And yet, much of the art remains. Adorning our post offices, schools, and city halls, it constitutes memento mori of a unique political moment.

Reviewed by: Gabriel Milner, Living New Deal’s Project Manager.

Memories of Milton Hebald

Milton Hebald

Milton Hebald, WPA Artist
Milton said “I know how to pose.”
Photo Credit: Harvey Smith

A man of style, dedicated to a life of art, Milton Hebald passed away in January at age 97. Although I had long heard about him from colleagues in New Mexico, I first met Milton at an exhibit of his artwork in Long Beach, California, in 2009. Many memorable conversations followed.

Milton was dedicated to reaching people through art in public places. He generously lent three of his bronze sculptures to an exhibition of WPA art I co-curated in 2010 at the Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek.

On his way to becoming a renowned sculptor, Milton won awards for his art as a child in New York City. He was the youngest student to enroll in the Art Students League. In the mid-1930s, Milton went to work for the WPA, teaching and producing public art.

He later put his artistic skills to work making models and casting metal in the defense industry during World War II. He was later drafted into the Army.

In the 1950s he won the Prix de Rome of the American Academy in Rome and with his wife, Cecille, began a half-century of living and working in Italy. After Cecille died he remarried and returned to New Mexico, and later moved to Southern California to be closer to his family.

Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet
The sculpture is among of Hebald’s best known works.
Photo Credit: Harvey Smith

Milton was known for celebrating the classic human form at a time when many of his contemporaries were moving into abstract art. Among his most recognized public works is the much-loved Romeo and Juliet sculpture in Central Park; the sculpture of James Joyce at his grave in Zurich, and the monumental Zodiac Screen he created for the iconic Pan American Terminal at JFK Airport in New York City. (The terminal is now demolished, but the sculptures are in storage).

Milton continued to work daily into his 90s, sculpting small terra cotta figures.  His sense of style was on display when I was photographing him next to one of these terracotta pieces. Striking a jaunty pose and a far off gaze, he commented, “I know how to pose.” During our last visit, a few months before he died, I watched him patiently instructing his great-granddaughter, Cecille, in drawing, while his granddaughter, Lara, looked on.

Milton’s memorial celebration last month in Culver City, California brought people together from across the country to extol the life and work of one of the last surviving WPA artists.

The New Deal’s Forgotten Art Form

“History of Transportation,” by Helen Lundeberg, 1039

“History of Transportation,” by Helen Lundeberg, 1039
This massive petrachrome mural in Inglewood, California was recently restored.

The Federal Art Project (FAP) encompassed a wide variety of art forms—from sculpture and fresco to oil-on-canvas and wood relief. However, few realize that an entirely new medium was invented by an FAP artist solely for use on public projects in Southern California.

American artist Stanton MacDonald-Wright first achieved prominence in the art world when he and fellow artist Morgan Russell co-founded the Synchromism movement, an approach to painting that analogized color to music. These works were among the first abstract paintings in American art.

During the 1930s, while MacDonald-Wright was in charge of the FAP in Southern California he devised an entirely new method of creating murals, which he called “petrachrome.”

The petrachrome process is significant not only to those interested in the New Deal but also to art historians in general. The process was similar in principle to a paint-by-numbers. Cement was first tinted with different pigments corresponding to the different sections of the mural. Next, crushed rock, glass, or tile was added to the mixture, which was then applied to the mural surface. Typically, the different color sections were delineated by strips of brass.

The colored cement was allowed to harden and then polished, creating a bold, striking appearance. Instead of a mural being painted onto a surface, the petrachrome process was designed so that the mural was the surface. Reports at the time claimed that the result “more enduring than marble” and “should last as long as the remaining great monuments of antiquity.”

Once the FAP was terminated in the early 1940s the petrachrome method seems to have disappeared completely, leaving only a handful of examples scattered around Southern California. The most celebrated of these is Helen Lundeberg’s “History of Transportation” in Inglewood. Recently the subject of an extensive renovation, Lundeberg’s mural is 8 feet tall and 240 feet long—making it one of the largest New Deal artworks in California.

Other examples of petrachrome murals can be found in San Diego’s Presidio Park, Santa Paula High School, Upland Elementary School, Santa Monica City Hall, and Canoga Park High School.

The majority of petrachrome murals still exist today. That they, by and large, remain in good condition is a testament to their resilience. I hope to publish a fully illustrated volume dedicated to preserving the legacy of MacDonald-Wright’s petrachrome process.

WPA Posters Inspire A New Generation

Grand Canyon poster by Matt Brass

Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon poster by Matt Brass
Photo Credit: Matt Brass

Inspired by the New Deal arts programs, Creative Action Network (CAN), an online community of mission-driven artists, announced a crowdsource campaign to create a new collection of “See America” posters celebrating America’s national parks.  Within a few weeks about two hundred poster designs hit their inbox, with new submissions arriving daily.

“With today’s digital tools, individual artists have the power to create and share their work as never before. That’s why now is the time to pick up where the New Deal left off, and harness America’s creative energy,” says Max Slavkin, CAN’s co-founder.

During the 1930s the WPA’s Federal Art Project put thousands of unemployed artists to work. FAP poster divisions opened in 48 states, churning out posters promoting art, theater, safety, education, health, and travel. Early on, the posters were hand-painted and produced in small quantities. But in 1938, a poster campaign to encourage visitation to the national parks was launched in Berkeley, California, using new silkscreen techniques that enabled full-color posters to be printed in bulk. The posters, which sold for about twelve cents a piece, were distributed to Chambers of Commerce in towns surrounding the parks. In the 1940s the remainders were sent to the parks. Few original posters survive, but quality reproductions abound: http://www.rangerdoug.com

Luis Prado, Craters of the Moon poster

Craters of the Moon
Luis Prado, Craters of the Moon poster
Photo Credit: Luis Prado

Seventy-five years after the national park posters first appeared, CAN, in partnership with the National Parks and Conservation Association and Posters for the People, revived the “See America” campaign using social media. In January, a collection of the new posters was shown in San Francisco and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York. More exhibitions are in the works. The “See America” designs are for sale, with forty percent of proceeds going to the artists.

Here’s one of the WPA posters that appeared on “The Living Dead” (see comment below):

Save Your Eyes WPA Poster

 

 

 

Exhibition Celebrates WPA Artist Leon Bibel

 

Protest with Flag
Watercolor by Leon Bibel, 1945

“Art, Activism, and the WPA,” on exhibit at the University of Richmond Museums in Virginia, focuses on the passionate social engagement of New Deal artist Leon Bibel (1913-1995), whose work depicts “the social ills of racism, poverty, unemployment, and war; the necessity of protest; and the shared humanity of the common worker.”

Art on display includes a painting called “The Lynching,” the lithograph “Unemployed Marchers,” and many scenes of the Spanish Civil War.

Curator Phyllis Wrynn of the Park Slope Gallery in Brooklyn, who knew the artist personally, says Bibel “saved everything.” The exhibition includes documents, photographs, and sketches from Bibel’s 9-year stint working for the Federal Art Project of the WPA. Bibel worked as an assistant to Bernard Zakheim in San Francisco and then moved to New York City and joined the FAP there. The financial security that came with this government job and the sense of being involved in a vital art movement made the WPA years the happiest of his life. According to Wrynn, Bibel told her “It was a miracle to be paid to do what he loved,” and spoke of “the camaraderie among the artists who supported each other’s efforts in many ways, eagerly sharing techniques, supplies, and information.”

Wrynn made a short film about Bibel’s life and work to accompany the exhibit. (See it on-line at http://parkslopegallery.com/html/leon-bibel-movie.html.) Documentary footage, photos, Bibel’s paintings and drawings, and his on-camera reminiscences give a vivid shapshot of the art world in the 1930s. The New Deal art projects and the Artist’s Union are prominently featured.

Like the Bernard Zakheim exhibition held in San Francisco two years ago, this show foregrounds the artist’s WPA connection. Although many artists of that generation spent some time working for the Federal Art Project, this has often been treated as a tangential or even embarrassing part of their careers. The Living New Deal is delighted to see the WPA finally getting credit for nurturing artists’ careers, sponsoring memorable works, and contributing significantly to the development of 20th century American art.

Information about the exhibition and related programs is at http://museums.richmond.edu/exhibitions/lora-robins-gallery/Leon-Bibel.html.