Editor's note: The following catalogue essay, without illustrations, was reprinted in Resource Library on February 23, 2007 with the permission of the Mobile Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text please contact the Mobile Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

Howard Cook: Drawings of Alabama

by Stephen Goldfarb 

 

                   I had become enthusiastic over the picturesque
 
                        quality of Tuscaloosa on a Saturday afternoon. . . .
 
                        the crowds of negroes come to town to shop, their
 
                        husky deep laughter, their ceaseless
 
                        high-pitched chatter, the red, green, yellow brilliance
 
                        of the clothes of the women, the careless graceful
 
                        nonchalance of the men. They formed a strange
 
                        contrast. . . with the taciturn, lean white farmers and
 
                        their soberly clad wives. . . .[1]                       

 

During his nearly 79 years, Howard Norton Cook (1901-1980) is known to have spent little more than six weeks in Alabama. But during this relatively short stay, in which he was joined by his wife Barbara Latham (1896-1989), also an artist, he made over five dozen drawings, some quite large, from which he produced two prints (a wood engraving and a lithograph). These drawings and prints illustrated the lives of the humblest residents of Alabama, both white and black, during some of the darkest days of the Great Depression.

Howard Cook was born on July 16, 1901, in Springfield, Massachusetts. Coming from "old New England stock," Cook took the art courses offered in his local high school and by the time he graduated in 1918, he had decided on a career in art. He received a $500 art scholarship, which he used to attend the Arts Students League the following year, and a second scholarship financed another year of study at the League. During these two years he studied drawing and painting with George Bridgman, Andrew Dasburg, Maurice Sterne, and Wallace Morgan.[2]

An inveterate traveler most of his life, Cook began his peregrinations in 1922 with a trip to Europe, where he sketched and wrote travel articles, very likely to help finance the trip. The following winter (1922-1923), he returned to the League to study etching with Joseph Pennell. Thus began his career as a print maker on which his current reputation as an artist largely rests. At this point in his career, Cook concentrated on etching under Pennell's tutelage, though he investigated the medium of woodcut as well. In the spring of 1923, Cook left for the Far East, a journey that took him to San Francisco, Hawaii, Japan (Yokohama, Kobe, Nagasaki) and China (Shanghai, Canton, Hong Kong), returning by way of the Bering Strait, where the ship he was on encountered a violent storm. A comment Cook later made about this experience -- "'Five days-no headway. Loose deck loads! Ship on beam-ends! Heavy fog! Snow! Near hurricane! I loved it!'" -- shows his enthusiasm for adventure.[3]

In 1924 Cook again went abroad, this time as an illustrator for Forum magazine, though his drawings and woodcuts appeared in both Harpers and The Atlantic as well. His travels took him to Istanbul, Malta, Marseilles, and then to Paris, where he resided with the American printmakers Thomas Handforth and James Allen. And it was in Paris where he made his first etchings beyond those done as a student. Next he signed on a ship that traveled from New York to San Francisco by way of the Panama Canal; after three voyages, he left the ship in San Francisco and traveled by train back East through the Southwest, his first exposure to this region of the United States, which would become his home in just a few years and with which much of his art is associated. He passed the next summer on Lake Maranacook in Maine with friends.  Here, he produced his first large woodcuts, which were later reproduced in Forum.

Cook returned to the Southwest in 1926, first to Santa Fe and then on to Taos.  At the latter place, he was able to witness some of the ceremonies of the local Indian tribes.  The Indians, along with the natural beauty of the Southwest, became the subjects of numerous prints (over three dozen) that were executed in 1926 and 1927. Also while in Taos, Cook met and subsequently married the artist Barbara Latham, who was somewhat older than he was.  They made their first home in Taos.  Late in 1927 Cook had his first one-man show of prints at the Denver Museum of Art.

As a couple Cook and Latham continued Cook's earlier peripatetic ways.  In 1928 they drove east to visit their families (Latham was from Norwich, Connecticut).  In New York they met Carl Zigrosser, who promoted prints as a fine art at his Weyhe Gallery.  Summer was spent on Deer Island, New Brunswick on the Bay of Fundy, and in the fall Cook's prints were exhibited for the first time in New York City at the Weyhe.  In 1929 travel continued, first to North Africa, then southern Europe, and then to Paris, where Cook took up lithography at the Desjobert Studio. Cook and Latham spent the end of 1929 and most of 1930 in Granville, Massachusetts, only a short distance from Cook's birthplace of Springfield.  By the end of the year, they were back in New York, where Cook, concentrating on lithography, worked with the master printer George Miller.  While in New York, Cook executed some of his best-known prints of the city, especially of bridges and skyscrapers in a bold, almost cubist style with strong tonal contrast.

Wanderlust struck again, this time aided by two Guggenheim travel grants. The first took Cook and Latham to Mexico.  After a brief stay in Mexico City, they settled in Taxco, where Cook continued to make prints and where he learned the basics of fresco painting. On his return to the United States, Cook won a commission from the early New Deal agency, the Public Works Art Project of the Treasury Department, to paint in fresco two murals on the walls of the law library in the United States courthouse in his hometown of Springfield. 

In early March of 1934 Howard Cook wrote Henry Allen Moe of the Guggenheim Foundation to ask for a second travel grant.  In his letter to Moe, Cook explained why he wanted a second Guggenheim.  "I will be able," Cook wrote, "to develop much further a strong background of the American scene and at the same time devote all my effort to improving my artistic expression of it."  To accomplish this goal, Cook proposed

to drive with my wife in our own car through the country. . . .  My work will be done in the simplest places where we can live in the atmosphere of the people I am drawing.  I intend to choose a few representative localities where I can benefit from a closer understanding of each rather than spread my activity over too much diversified territory.   My route is South with possibility of staying in the following places, where I have friends to help with a study of the region:  Maryland, West Virginia, Alabama and New Orleans. Then to the Southwest. . . .  My schedule is flexible because I want to spend the most time in places where I feel that I am getting the most good.  I want to study the Negro at work and play, and the many types of Americans who are natives of each region.  As an important contrast to the outdoor activity of the people, I also want to depict the life and forms inside some modern industries.[4] 

Cook further explained when he and his wife were "settled," they could live on $75 a month,  though they would need some additional money "for travel, materials and model hire, all of which is hard to figure out as I don't know what the prices are where we are going."  He concluded his letter with the declaration that "We will travel in the most economical way and prefer to live in reasonable places."[5]

Less than three weeks later, Cook received a letter from Moe offering him a grant of $1,500 for 12 months beginning in the summer of 1934 for the "Continuation of creative work in the graphic arts, in the United States."[6]   Cook and Latham lost no time.  They purchased a used Model T Ford.  In a letter to Moe, Cook explained how he had modified the vehicle for their upcoming travels: "Our Ford has a 'bustle' in the back, a built-up contrivance of which I am the inventor, that carries a great quantity of supplies.  I have gone to much trouble and expense in fixing the car so that it will be safe and reliable."[7]  Finally, they left for the South from her family's home of Norwich, Connecticut, on May 17, 1934.

In just two days they arrived at Bellevue, in the community of Goode, near Lynchburg, Virginia, where they stayed in a large antebellum mansion that formally had been a boys' boarding school. After about seven weeks, they drove to the Pine Mountain School located in Harlan County, Kentucky.  After only a week, for reasons that are not clear, they set out for Altapass, North Carolina, a small community near Spruce Pine, where they stayed another seven weeks.At these three places Cook and Latham made friends with the local people, both white and black, and were able to get a number to sit while they sketched them.  Cook also made drawings of the local people as they worked at their traditional labors and crafts.  With the coming end of summer, they headed for Alabama.

Our knowledge of what Cook and Latham did while in Alabama is largely based on a travel journal that she kept and three short essays that he wrote about the subjects he drew and his correspondence with Henry Allen Moe of the Guggenheim Foundation.[8]  Latham's journal, which is the fullest account of their travels, does not usually supply exact dates.  However, she also kept an incomplete log of expenses (including expenditures for gasoline), and it is from this page of her travel journals that we learn that they left North Carolina on September 3rd, spent the night in Anniston, Alabama, and arrived in Tuscaloosa the next day.  While in Tuscaloosa, Cook and Latham apparently stayed with her sister Emily and her husband James R. Cudworth, who was at that time professor of mineral engineering at the University of Alabama.[9]

Cook and Latham got to Tuscaloosa when "cotton picking was in full swing."[10]  Cook described this kind of labor as being "without a doubt a back-breaking effort, but in spite of this the Negroes travelling [sic] down the long rows in groups for the sake of companionship, sang, joked and carried on lively gossip."  Cook continued:

There was no time lost at the end of the rows, as the group of pickers whose long white bags trailing along the ground created an insect-like crawling motion [that] gradually swooped over the plants.  Both hands worked mechanically, dark fingers around a ball flashing from plant to bag, bodies bent double.  Brilliant flashes of color from subtly faded garments and straw hats dotted the whitened sea of cotton.[11]

Cook captured the toil of cotton picking in a large, colorful drawing (Fig. 13). This rendering seems less an accurate picture of cotton picking than a composite in which he undertakes the challenge of depicting many different figures with varied postures in a single composition.  Fifteen figures crowded into the image area leave little space without a human figure.  Most appear to be actually picking cotton with bended backs, while a male figure in the upper left has hoisted a sack of cotton on his head, and two other figures, one male and one female, are carrying full sacks over their left shoulders. The colors, except for the orange hat of the woman in the center, are subdued whites and yellows, interspersed with the green leaves of the cotton plants with the white of cotton boles in the foreground. This drawing captures the social nature of cotton picking, while muting its arduous labor.  In two other drawings, Cook pictures a single male cotton picker with a sack over his right shoulder (Figs. 14 and 15).

Once picked, "the field workers emptied [their] sacks into wicker hampers to be dumped into high-sided [wagons pulled by] mule teams. Brown-skinned girls jumped on the piles of cotton balls to condense them in [to a] smaller space, dark feet flashing against the purest white."  (Fig. 43)  The cotton was then transported to the gin.  Cook described the scene:

During the busy picking season the high rickety cotton wagons crawled along all the roads to the gin, and early in the frosty morning before sunrise the roads were lined with out-of-town wagons loaded high. .  . . [12] (Figs. 34, 37, 38)

At the gin the wagon was driven under an overhang, and "Into the suction pipe a wagon-load of cotton disappeared in a very few minutes."[13]  Cook rendered this scene with the worker standing in the wagon with his back to the viewer.  The mules, on the other hand, are looking directly at the artist, as he drew them (Fig. 32).  Cook apparently took a liking to this ubiquitous work animal of the American South; in another drawing, he rendered this creature's elongated head, tongue hanging out looking directly at the viewer in an unusual close-up view in which the mule's head reaches from the top of  the picture space to the bottom, with negative space on either side (Fig. 23).  And in yet another drawing Cook gives a full-length portrait of a mule without any background (Fig. 21).  Cook also depicted the interior of a cotton gin house with three "tall vertical gins," pictured at an angle, which "cleansed and seeded" the cotton and poured it "out at the bottom in a snowy cascade."[14] (Fig. 29)

After the end of cotton season, according to Cook, "when the light frosts had begun. . . the little sorghum mills spring into activity."[15]  Cook and Latham visited one such mill in southwest Tuscaloosa County. The sorghum mill consists of a grinding mechanism called a squeezer, which ground the sorghum stalks.  Motive power for the sorghum mill was provided by a mule, which "treaded around in a circle hitched to the end of a long pole. . . . [and was] kept in motion by the prodding energy of a tiny pickaninny.  Another Negro fed the long cane stalks into the grinder while greenish juice oozed out below.  This juice ran down a trough to the cooper-lined pans over an open wood fire. . . ." The heat evaporated the water and the resulting syrup was the sorghum.[16]

Cook illustrated the making of sorghum in three drawings.  One pictures the sorghum grinder, which dominates the center of the drawing (Fig. 27).  Neither of the workers mentioned by Cook is in the drawing, nor is the mule. The drawing is, no doubt, incomplete, as the green sorghum stalks hang in mid-air. It is likely that Cook intended a figure of the man feeding the stalks into the grinder to occupy the open space between the grinder and the levitating stalks.  Also incomplete is the figure of the man on the left, which has only been outlined.  However, substantial color in this drawing suggests that it is an incomplete composition rather than a study.  In another drawing with no color, Cook illustrates a black man feeding the stalks into the grinder (Fig.26).   The drawing of the man is well-developed, while the grinder, in the upper left, is barely drawn and the juice coming from the grinder a little more visible.  A third drawing, which illustrates the raw sorghum juice being processed in the open cooper-lined pans, though colorful, also appears to be incomplete (Fig. 25).

Not far from the sorghum mill near the "little settlement called Foster's" located in the southwest part of Tuscaloosa County near the banks of the Black Warrior River, Cook and Latham visited an "old pottery establishment run by sons and grandsons of the original builders of the kiln."[17]  In two uncolored drawings Cook pictured the two potters in almost heroic stances in the act of throwing pots on a foot-powered wheel.  The physicality of the actual turning of the pots is emphasized in both drawings in the musculature of the potters, especially the left arm, which is shaping the inside of each pot (Figs. 4 and 28). Although without color, these renderings seem finished.

Cook's admiration for these two potters is evident in both the drawings and his description of them at work:

Ancestral pride distinguished every movement of the two potters working gray clay into large butter churns, pickle jars, whiskey and sorghum jugs, beer mugs and flower pots.  The deft, precise and swift drawing out of a beautifully proportioned shape from an inert lump of clay, admirable because for the loving creation of an ordinary article of very common use.[18]

Cook and Latham also took an interest in the religious practices of the rural black population.  On the first Sunday (September 9, 1934) in Tuscaloosa, they ventured out into the countryside and were able to witness a foot-washing ceremony.  Driving about twenty miles out-of-town, Cook and Latham arrived at the New Bethany Church.  When they learned that the foot-washing would take place in the afternoon, they drove off to find a place to eat their picnic lunch.  They returned following lunch but only after an uncomfortable experience involving a "bootleggers joint" and a group of Negroes "in various stages of drink."  As there had been three lynchings of African Americans in Tuscaloosa County the year before,[19] they did not feel that it was "exactly healthy [to be] with a bunch of drunken negroes" and were relieved after they drove away from what could have been a dangerous encounter.  "We were nervous about going back [to the church]," Latham later wrote, "but we might never have a chance to see a foot washing again."[20]  So after their picnic lunch, they drove back to the church.

On a "platform directly above the preacher & his congregation," Cook and Latham witnessed what to them must have been an exotic ceremony.  Latham described what happened next:

half of the church below us was filled in the center & on one side with women dressed in white-white robes, aprons & head kerchiefs. They were holding hands & swaying back & forth to the singing. The effect was like a rhythmic dance. The other side just below us was filled with men. . . . All of a sudden just below us on the right was a piercing shriek, a woman sprang into the air as if a cannon cracker had gone off under her.  Her arms waved madly and she leapt up & down screaming.  Several of her sisters stood up in a very business like manner & held her around the middle. She continued to leap around in a most abandoned fashion, throwing her head back and jerking her body.[21]

Cook's large drawing of the foot-washing, which was done from memory,[22] depicts just the activity described by his wife in her journal.  In an image area crowded with people, Cook pictures the foot washing, which Latham described as follows:

the preacher and his 2 deacons took off their coats, at this signal the group of men on the left front all rose and took off their coats.  Then all both men and women began to take off their shoes.  The preacher then sat down and one of his deacons set a white enamel basin of water before him on the floor, knelt & washed the preachers [sic] feet, one after the other, dried them & was then ready to have his own washed. Now all the women in white were barefoot. Those at the end of each row knelt with a white enamel basin of water, & a long white towel which was wound around the waist and then flung over the right shoulder until the feet were ready to be dried.  When one woman had finished she changes places with the feet she had just washed.[23]

Cook's drawing of this ceremony is phenomenal, not only because we rarely see the Christian rite of foot-washing in art, but because he has almost completely filled the picture space of this three-by-four-foot drawing with some three dozen figures, though many are barely discernable in the distant background. Among this crowd of black figures, a number of them sedately seated to the right, our attention alights on a woman in rapture, who raises her hands in ecstasy with an animated expression on her face, as three other women standing nearby appear to be trying to control her.   Her hands stand out due to the small area of white negative space surrounding them.  To her lower right another woman is bent backward on her own spirited journey with hands raised, although no one else seems to notice. Below the figures of the women are crouching men performing the foot-washing, although we also see two men, perhaps, preachers, who appear to be conversing in the very immediate foreground, as one has a Bible in hand. Interestingly, all the figures have white garments except one female only partially visible to the far left wearing a rose-colored dress, and small touches of three colored hats, two pink and one yellow, in the far background.

On the following Sunday (September 16, 1934), Cook and Latham again ventured out from Tuscaloosa, this time "in search of a baptizing and found one in progress by the side of a stream near the road. "[24]  Both Cook and Latham described the baptism, and their accounts largely agree.  As Cook's is longer and more complete, it is given here, though in an abbreviated form:

October was approaching . . . so the muddy stream swollen by heavy rains was not the most comfortable place in which to immerse communicants for baptism.  In spite of this about twenty-five Negroes dressed in white robes with Moorishly-draped white head pieces were lined up in several rows at the bank of the pool. . . near Moundville, Alabama one cloudy Sunday morning. . . . The scene was set, whereupon two deacons . . . gently led in the first victim who received a benediction from the minister.  Then the two strong-armed deacons took the communicant around the shoulders and waist, thrusting her with a great splash completely out of sight.  She came up quickly on the rebound, blowing spray and waving her arms wildly, thrashing about like a large fish caught in too shallow water.  As soon as the choking was over the energy created by the shock was unloosed, causing a hoarse screaming and sobbing.[25]

Cook recorded his original impressions of the baptism in a drawing of the same size of that of the foot-washing, though using a vertical format.  Most of the figures are women dressed in white, sedately waiting to be baptized; those performing the baptism are men dressed in indistinct brown garments, except for the figure who appears to be the preacher, identified by his clerical collar.  In the lower center foreground a female figure partly submerged in a large pool of water faces the viewer; her out-stretched arms are supported by two deacons in the water who have their backs to the viewer.  On the left a woman, against whose white robe the head of one of the deacons is outlined, awaits her turn in the pool.  Cook moves close to the woman about to be submerged.  What is evident in this baptism scene is the emphasis on the woman's facial expression which testifies to her spiritual experience.  Her mouth opens widely and her eyes close to depict the inner transformation she is about to undergo.[26]

Cook's interest was not just in the rural economy and folkways, but extended to modern industry as well.  So on October 2nd, he and Latham drove to Birmingham, a trip of about 60 miles, to visit and sketch its steel mills and coal mines.  Called the "Magic City," because of its almost explosive growth, Birmingham had no antebellum history having been founded after the Civil War.  The city is located on deposits of iron ore and limestone, as well as coal, the raw materials for the manufacture of iron and steel.  Latham described Birmingham as "a large well laid out not unlike any prosperous city in the north."[27]   After about a week in Birmingham, they drove another 60 or so miles to Gadsden, described by Latham as "a small industrial city about as drab & squalid as the majority of such small cities in the United States, less so than some because of its rows of shade trees in the residential district."[28]  From the expense log kept by Latham, it appears that Cook and Latham were in Birmingham from October 2nd to October 7th, then drove to Gadsden on October 8th.  On either October 10th or 11th they returned to Birmingham and stayed until October 13th and then returned to Tuscaloosa.[29]

Neither Cook nor Latham left much documentation that could help explain specific scenes that he drew of the coal mines and steel mills of Birmingham and Gadsden.  The only relevant document this author could locate is the following letter to Henry Allen Moe, in which Cook described what he did in those early days of October 1934:

I had a good opportunity to get some material from the steel district around Birmingham, concentrating on the spectacular operations of "tapping-the-heat" from both blast furnaces and open hearth furnaces as well as pouring molten iron and the steel rolling mills.  A very friendly superintendent of a coal mine took me on a long underground sketching trip to get mining operations.  Although I had to bend over constantly during all of the six-mile walk it was the most fascinating and unusual experience I have had, and fortunately a "hard-shelled" cap took all the gouges from the low ceiling.[30] 

Only four in the Georgia Museum's collection of Cook's drawings can be identified with certainty as being done in the coal mines or of miners, and two of these appear to be sketches (1899 and 1900-NOT IN EXHIBIT).  In both sketches the scene appears to be underground, and the worker is bending over, an indication of the arduousness of the work.  The third drawing, which Cook titled "Ben Blalock - Miner Boss"(Fig. 30),appears to be a completed study, though the figure is off center on the left.  The men in all three of these drawings are equipped with miner's caps with carbide lamps; Cook also rendered this essential tool of the miner's trade in a color sketch (Fig. 9). 

Cook's drawings of the manufacture of iron and steel are both more numerous and more colorful, the latter due no doubt to the color of the molten metal.  The most complete of these drawings is of a furnace (Fig. 18), which has been identified as Sloss furnace #1 in Birmingham.[31]   The view of the furnace is from ground level, looking up at this imposing industrial complex of forms.  The contents of the furnace, the molten iron, are being "tapped," i.e. removed, from the furnace, which is taking place on the lower left of the drawing.  The warm blue smoke, bellowing from the molten iron, softens the scene and adds contrast to the dark, dull metallic furnace. Neither the danger of the work nor the likely toxicity of the blue smoke is evident in Cook's drawing.  The size of the furnace is emphasized by the barely discernable figure, very likely included for scale, outlined in the blue hole on the lower right, just above the set of stairs. 

All the remaining of Cook drawings of the iron/steel industry are of the interiors of the workshops where the raw iron or steel was manufactured into useable things.  While still molten, the metal is moved to the needed location by ladles, both large and small.  In one drawing Cook rendered in color a large, bucket-like ladle on a massive hook with a geared mechanism on the side that enabled a worker to pour its contents into large molds (Fig. 8).  On the very top of this drawing he rendered a smaller hand ladle, which allows a worker to pour molten metal in smaller molds.[32]  A larger ladle is pictured in another drawing, without color, in which a group of men appear to be distancing themselves from the pouring of its fiery contents (Fig. 7).     

The molds into which the molten metal is being poured look similar to those pictured in another drawing (Fig. 19),that appears to be incomplete as the three containers on the left are in color and the three on right without color.  Other drawings show the molten metal being formed into useful articles.  In one, a tongue-like ribbon of red-hot metal seems to be flowing from a machine; it must be in a semi-solid state, as the worker is working it with a scissor-like tool (Fig. 21).  In another, two men are laboring in front of a forge with the one on the left "using a press or possibly a power hammer of some sort" to form further the still hot metal object (Fig. 24).[33] And in the most colorful drawing (Fig. 20), it is impossible to know just what is going on, except to say that the work appears to be dangerous.

As Cook explained, one of his goals for his second Guggenheim grant was "to live among and portray the people of our Southeastern and Southern States."[34] Cook rendered many of the people he met in straight forward portraits, most with little or no background. Included are three, apparently African American, steel workers (Figs. 2, 3, and 6.), drawn wearing safety glasses, which clearly indicate the nature of their employment.  Although none of the poses are directly frontal, all the subjects are clearly keeping an eye on the artist, which is especially true of the man, in fig. 6, who has turned his head nearly 90 degrees to his left; his look could best be described as a wary, side glance at the artist

Cook also drew portraits of the rural and small-town blacks that he met in Tuscaloosa as part of his stated goal "to study the Negro at work and play."[35]  Of the twelve portraits in this exhibit, ten are of blacks.  Close up they offered pictorial possibilities and challenges in the stark contrast that dark tones of their skin supplied against the light background of the paper.  The rich, dark brown pigment of their skin is fully and expertly modeled with light, subtle shades revealing every curve, fold, bend and hollow of facial physiognomy.  Tuscaloosa Giant (Fig. 11), Tuscaloosa Coloured Man (Fig. 33), and The Indomitable One (Fig. 22) are examples.   In a few instances, like Tuscaloosa Giant, Cook includes the shoulders and upper arms, and in that particular portrait he implies the physical strength of his subject; in other instances such as The Indomitable One the face occupies the entire image area.  Some are seen in profile Alabama Woman (Fig. 36) and Tuscaloosa Girl (Fig. 35) from an unusual, slightly lateral, rear view.

As a part of his study, Cook also brought out inner character or the spirit of the sitter in his portraits.  A few titles hint at this aspect, such as The Indomitable One where the downward cast of the sitter's narrowed eyes and the downward lines around his mouth suggest inner defiance.  Tuscaloosa Man has a similar facial expression that leans more toward resignation.  Most of the adults bear a solemn expression possibly explicable by the fact that they were modeling or "sitting" for a white Yankee artist, whom they did not know; only Tuscaloosa Taxi Man (Fig. 12) can be described as amenable.  Noteworthy is his one portrait of the black child, Tuscaloosa Boy (Fig. 31),whose hint of a frown with a penetrating stare through wide dark eyes suggests a touch of sadness.

Cook and Latham did not confine themselves to communal activities of African Americans, but sought out those of whites as well, for as Latham observed in her journal "poor white gatherings in Alabama were also interesting."  One Sunday they attended "an all day sing" in the Tuscaloosa county courthouse, and they also attended more than one fiddler's contest, a popular form of entertainment in Alabama then and now.[36]  Both Cook and Latham gave accounts of the most interesting of these contests; as Cook's narrative is both more complete and more interesting, it is given here (in an abbreviated form):

A Fiddler's Contest was scheduled to be held at night in the small town of         Brookwood, Alabama. . . . There were many contestants competing for the honor of fiddling. . . .To a newcomer this animated singing of folk-songs, ballads, dance   jigs and the . . . feverish sawing of violins, guitar twanging were not only fascinating. . .    but absolutely astonishing.  We marveled at the nimble fingers of these raw country-men as they fiercely. . .played and at the red-blooded vigor of the stories that rolled forth. . . . When all the playing ended. . . a jury composed of townspeople . . . voted the prize performance to [the trio pictured in the drawing "Fiddler's Contest."][37]

More than one drawing of the three musicians exisits; Cook also used the drawings as the basis for a lithograph.  To enhance visual unity, both of the drawings and the lithograph bring the three seated musicians very close together, closer perhaps than they actually were when performing.  Contrasting visual rhythm through the trio suggests rhythm in the music they are playing:  the flowing, curvilinear folds of their clothing in contrast with the more angular forms of their limbs and instruments.  In the lithograph they are also unified by grey-black tones that encircle the trio in the background; in the drawing soft brown tones in the background are more naturalistic in depicting the wood walls.  The central figure in the drawing takes a leading role as he stands out more due to contrasting hues of his clothing that highlight his crossed legs with that of his partners and the brown wood background into which those lateral figures blend.  In both the drawings and the lithograph, the feet of the musicians seem to be beating out the rhythm of the music.

Cook and Latham left Tuscaloosa in the middle of October (probably either the 16th or the 17th) and "drove through Greensboro [Alabama] one of the most attractive, quaint, little towns we've seen.  Grilled balconies along the main street overhanging the street, red brick buildings, beautiful drooping old trees. . . a quiet beautiful spot with the charm most U.S.A. towns lack."[38] They spent the night in Jackson, Alabama, "a dusty sordid place," and drove on to Mobile the next day.  Latham thought the suburbs disappointing but found the "old center of the city. . .charming. . . [with] beautiful overhanging grill balconies. . . , narrow streets, shady old square, nice old trees."  Although they found both Greensboro and Mobile alluring, no drawings of either place are known. They had lunch in Mobile then drove west to the Mississippi Riviera, spent the night, and then the next day drove on to New Orleans.[39]  There is no record that either of them ever returned to Alabama. 

In retrospect it would appear that Cook's second Guggenheim fellowship was a turning point in his career as an artist.  In an article he wrote almost a decade later, revealingly entitled "The Road from Prints to Frescoes," Cook stated that from his travels through the South "A large collection of portraits drawings ensued, [and] some prints," as well as "material that formed the basis of the designs that were later used for the frescoes in Pittsburgh and San Antonio."[40] Cook painted his first mural in fresco on the wall of the Hotel Taxqueño in Taxco, Mexico, which was done on his first Guggenheim travel grant in 1933.[41]  After returning to the United States, he painted a two-panel, fresco for the library of the federal courthouse in his home town of Springfield, Massachusetts under the temporary Public Works Art Program. This work was completed in early 1934, just months before he left for the South.

Even before he left for the South in May 1934, Cook appears to have been moving away from prints as his preferred media.  According to the catalogue raisonné of his graphic works, Cook produced 223 prints in his lifetime (excluding small and mostly decorative book illustrations). Over four-fifths (or 181) were executed before his second Guggenheim fellowship.  Less than a dozen prints were made from the several hundreds of drawings Cook made while in the South, only two of Alabama subjects.  Rather than preliminary works for prints, Cook's drawings served as studies for the murals that he painted, which consumed his energies for most of the rest of the 1930s.  

Even before the end of his second Guggenheim, Cook was inquiring about painting a mural on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin, though that project did not come to fruition.[42] However, not long after the end of his second Guggenheim, Cook won a competition to paint a mural in fresco for the federal courthouse in Pittsburgh, a project that he completed in the early months of 1936.  In the following year Cook won an even larger commission to paint a mural in the federal courthouse and post office in San Antonio.  This latter project, which took some two-and-one half years to complete, turned out to be the largest mural painted by a single person for a New Deal agency and was completed May 1939.[43] Cook executed a third New Deal commission (completed in 1941) for the post office in Corpus Christi. Consisting of two panels (4' x 17' each), they were not done in fresco but rather in oil on canvas.[44]

With the coming of World War II, Cook first recorded the activities at the naval base in Norfolk, Virginia for the Office of War Information in 1942, and, then in 1943, served as an Artist War Correspondent (with the rank of Colonel) in the South Pacific, which included taking part in the landing on Rendova Island.  In addition to many drawings, Cook did five prints based on his war experiences, including his memorable Self-Portrait in Foxhole, Guadalcanal 1943.  After the demise of the Artist War Correspondent program, Cook briefly worked for Collier'smagazine as a war correspondent; later he continued to paint oils for publication in Collier's.[45]

After returning from the war, Cook returned to New Mexico and turned to painting, which largely displaced his work as a graphic artist, as he did only fifteen more prints in his lifetime.[46]  In 1952-53 he executed his last mural commission for the Mayo Clinic. Cook remained active with shows of his paintings and with temporary teaching positions until ill health overtook him in the 1960s. His paintings are now, a quarter century after his death, largely unknown. 

Whether Cook will ever gain recognition as a painter is a matter of speculation.  His paintings are widely dispersed, mostly in private collections, making a catalogue raisonné, even an exhibit, highly problematic. Although the five mural commissions in the United States are all extant, they are, in general, far from the art centers in North America and also largely unknown.[47] Perhaps if Cook is ever to gain recognition beyond his prints, it will be for his drawings, as they are held by museums.[48]  And it will be exhibits like this one that will make Cook known as more than a graphic artist, for at their best, his drawings are equal to those of his best prints.

Less than two years after Cook and Latham left Alabama, Walker Evans and James Agee arrived in Hale County on assignment from Fortune magazine to report on sharecropping in Alabama.  The results of their visit would not appear in Fortunebut were published in the now much heralded book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.  Although barely noticed when it was first published in 1941 (it sold only 600 copies before it was withdrawn), the book became both a critical and popular success after it was reissued in 1960.[49]

In 62 black-and-white photographs by Evans and the prose of Agee, the reader is transported back to rural Alabama during the Great Depression.  What is surprising is that, although Evans' photographs were taken within 40 miles of where Cook and Latham visited two years before, they seem worlds apart. The whites, there is only single photograph of blacks, inhabit an impoverished world, which may be a fair description of rural Alabama of the 1930s. The portraits and group photographs of the sharecroppers and their families picture people thin to the point of being sickly, dressed in clothing that is well-worn to the point of being ragged, and their countenance is that of a broken and hopeless people.

One needs not romanticize the African Americans in Cook's drawings to observe that they appear well fed, in good health, and adequately clothed; in fact, many of them appear to be nothing short of robust. Part of this may be explained by Cook's tendency to give his subjects muscular bodies, especially in the arms. (This is especially evident in the two white potters [Figs. 4 and 28], though, given the demands of their trade, they would naturally result in a powerfully-built body.) Certainly the people in Cook's drawings do not share the desperation that is so very evident in Evans's photographs of the white sharecroppers. This might seem surprising in that blacks were generally poorer than whites in Alabama during the era of Jim Crow, though poverty during the Great Depression knew no color line.  However, another possibility is that Cook sought out particularly muscular figures by which to hone his superb drawing of the human figure and plumb their character (if not their soul) through facial expression.

This leads to a major difference between Cook and many of his artist contemporaries.  While Cook is immersed in the American Scene and regionalism, he does not seem share the leftwing convictions of many of the artists of the 1930s.[50]  An examination of his prints shows not a single one that could be called social realism -- no breadlines, no strikes, no poverty.  When he renders workers, they are working, and while the work could be dangerous, the workers do not appear to be demoralized.  Rather they seem to be well in control, even if the machinery overshadows them, as it does in his drawings of the iron/steel mills.

Cook's approach to art seems to have been a perfect fit for the murals he painted for the federal government during the New Deal. His murals in Pittsburgh, San Antonio, and Corpus Christi seem inhabited by the same attractive and vigorous people that are in his drawings. And, in fact, many of those in the drawings were used as studies for figures in the murals. Cook's drawings and prints, as exemplified by those done in Alabama in the fall of 1934, are, in the words of Carl Zigrosser not "flamboyant. . . [but rather in] the style of a trained observer and a skilled technician, of a reserved but alert intelligence. All his work is beautifully drawn and dynamically organized. . . . He is one of the great designers."[51]

 

[1] Carl Carmer, Stars Fell on Alabama(New York: Literary Guild, 1934), 11.

[2] Carl Zigrosser, The Artist in America: Twenty-Four Close-ups of Contemporary Printmakers (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1942), 193-94 and Betty and Douglas Duffy, The Graphic Works of Howard Cook: A Catalogue Raisonné (Bethesda, MD: Bethesda Art Gallery, 1984), 156.  Most of the biography that follows is based on these two works.

[3] Duffy and Duffy, Graphic Works of Howard Cook,15.

[4] Howard Cook letter to Henry Allen Moe, March 4, 1934.  Letters from Cook to Moe are handwritten; those from Moe to Cook are typewritten.   All letters between Cook and Moe are from the archives of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation of New York City. Cook's punctuation leaves something to be desired; so in a few places, I have silently changed the punctuation, being careful not to change the meaning of what he is writing.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Moe letter to Cook, March 22, 1934.  In 1934 the Guggenheim Foundation awarded only 39 fellowships out of 765 applications, and nine of the 39 awards-- including Cook's--wererenewals; Dorothy Elise Blitch Drake, "Essential Character: Images of African Americans by Howard Cook," Master's thesis, University of Georgia. 1995, 16, footnote 24.

[7] Cook letter to Moe, May 12, 1934.

[8] I read Latham's travel journal on microfilm supplied to me by the Archives of American Art.  Citations to this document are by frame number.  Cook wrote thirteen short essays about his second Guggenheim travel grant; only three of these are related to Alabama: "Cotton," "Sorghum Miller," and "The Potters." Copies of these were supplied to me by the Roswell Museum and Art Center, Roswell, New Mexico.  For the correspondence with Henry Allen Moe, see footnote 3. 

[9] Latham "Journal," frame 568.  Suzanne Rau Wolfe, The University of Alabama: A Pictorial History(Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1983), 221.  At the time of the couple's visit, Professor Cudworth and his wife were residing at 1309 17th Avenue in Tuscaloosa.

[10] Latham, "Journal," frame," 549.

[11] Cook, "Cotton."

[12] Ibid. 

[13] Ibid. 

[14] Ibid.

[15] Cook, "Sorghum Miller."

[16] Ibid. This sorghum mill was probably owned by a farmer by the name of Harvey Maddox, as the drawing of the mule (Fig. 29) has the following written notation on it: "Farm of Harvey Maddox, Foster's Alabama."  It is likely that this mule provided the motive power for the sorghum mill.

[17] Cook, The Potters."

[18] Ibid. Latham's description of the potters concurs with that of her husband's: "We also watched the potters. . . . They had a rough shed with 2 potters [sic] wheels where they made mostly sorghum jugs and pickle jars.  The potters were excellent, very skilled at their wheels." Latham, "Journal," frame 580.  The two potters were probably father and son Monroe Miller (Fig. 28) and Ralph Miller (Fig. 4) respectively, who worked for Nathan Browning Wright, owner of a pottery works near Fosters, Tuscaloosa County in the 1930s.  Joey Brackner, Alabama Folk Pottery (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006),241-42; Joey Brackner telephone conversation with author, August 1, 2006.

[19] For a thorough study of these lynchings, see Mary Jo Madison, "Shots in the Dark: Lynching in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 1933," Master's thesis, Auburn University, 1991. 

[20] Latham, "Journal,"frames 555-56.

[21] Ibid.,frames 557, 559-60.

[22] "I have made several large drawings by memory of curious religious manifestations by the Negroes at the 'Hard-Shell Baptist's' baptizing, another sect's 'foot-washing,' a wild orgy of screaming, jumping and writhing creatures."  Cook letter to Moe, September 19, 1934. 

[23] Latham, "Journal," frames 561-62.  Another description of this ceremony appeared in an unsigned review of an exhibit of Cook's drawings atthe Weyhe Gallery: "One of Cook's most striking works illustrates a Negro ritual infrequently held and rarely attended by the whites.  In this religious meeting they get the 'devil out of their souls' by spasmodic contortions.  When they feel that they are free from their troublesome sins, they wash each other's feet and partake of wine."  Art Digest 11 (February 15, 1937), 6.

[24] Ibid., frame 564.

[25] Duffy and Duffy, Graphic Works of Howard Cook,129.  Cook's description is associated with his wood engraving, which was based on the drawing, and differs little from the drawing except for the minor figures in the background.  And the wood engraving is reversed left-to-right from that of the drawing.  Latham's description largely follows that of her husband: "The preacher in a white robe stood in the center of a group with 5 or 6 women also in white robes & head kerchiefs.  They all sang several hymns and the preacher made a short speech. . . . The white robed women about to get religion were conspicuously older.  Presently the preacher escorted on either side by an overalled deacon, waded into the stream tap[p]ing the bottom with a long staff which he held in one hand, his open bible in the other.  When he found a satisfactory spot he arranged him self, the water half way between his waist & arm pits.  Then the two deacons waded out and each took an arm of the first woman in white.  She hung back and moaned a bit but was half dragged into the water where she immediately calmed down. . . . Having led the first woman to the preacher, the deacons & the woman stood before him while he read a few words, raised his hand and the 2 deacons lowered the woman into the water backward until she was completely submerged[.] Then they bro[ugh]t her up again & half dragged half carried her back to the bank. She gasped and shuttered and finally recovered enough to chant feebly 'I got Jesus, I got Jesus.' Latham, "Journal," frames 564-66.

[26] For a discussion of baptism in American art, see Robert L. Gambone, Art and Popular Religion in Evangelical America, 1915-1940 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989), chapter 6.  Gambone also includes Cook's drawings of both the baptism and foot-washing in his discussion.

[27] Latham, "Journal," frame 591.

[28] Ibid., frames 592-93.

[29] Ibid.," frame 568.

[30] Cook letter to Moe, November 14, 1934.

[31] Sloss # 1 "went into blast in 1929 and ran until 1970. It is a 450 ton/day smelting furnace.  The drawing depicts the iron notch being tapped. This happened every four hours and would release from 80 to 100 tons of iron depending on orders."  John Springer email to author, June 23, 2006.  For a history of the Sloss company, see W. David Lewis, Sloss Furnaces and the Rise of the Birmingham District: An Industrial Epic (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994).  As Lewis explains in this book, Sloss never manufactured steel, but remained in the iron business, and in doing so, remained in production longer than any of the steel companies. 

[32] John Springer email to author, June 27, 2006.  

[33] Ibid.

[34] Quoted in a review of an exhibit of Cook's drawings at the Weyhe Gallery; New York Times, February 14, 1937, X-14.

[35]See footnote 3.

[36] Latham, "Journal," frames 571, 574-76.  Wayne Flynt, Alabama in the Twentieth Century (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004), 518-19.

[37]Duffy and Duffy, Graphic Works of Howard Cook, 135.  Latham's description of the fiddler's contest is also of interest: "Most of the performers were young men or boys but 2 were old timers and they made up for the mediocrity of the all the rest.  One old timer was a raw boned gaunt hill billy dressed in overalls tucked into his high boots.  His hair fell over his face in a lank mane sometimes covering it down to his half grown beard, as he jerked his head to the jig he played so ferociously.  He held his fiddle half way between shoulder & waist sawing away at a terrific speed all the time loudly tapping time with one large boot. His seamy face looking droll and unconcerned."  Latham, "Journal," frame 572.

[38] Ibid.,frame, 600.

[39] Ibid.,frames 600-601.

[40] Howard Cook, "The Road from Prints to Frescoes," Magazine of Art 35 (January 1942), 4.

[41] For an image of this mural, see Cook, "Road from Prints to Frescoes," 6.

[42] In January 1935, Cook wrote to Moe that "Mr. Frank Dobie has interested somebody in the University of Texas in the idea of having me do a fresco there."  Cook letter to Moe, January 7, 1934 (misdated, actually 1935).   About three weeks later Cook wrote Moe the disappointing news that "The project for the fresco in the University of Texas has turned out to be of a very indefinite nature and date, so we have taken a cottage on the beach here [in Corpus Christi, Texas]."  Cook letter to Moe, January 31, 1935.

[43] For Cook's own account of painting the San Antonio mural, see Cook, "Road from Prints to Frescoes," 4-10, 39-40.

[44]  Ibid., 42.

[45] Duffy and Duffy, Graphic Works of Howard Cook,160.

[46] In the early 1960s Clinton Adams says that Cook "spoke of printmaking as a past accomplishment: something over and done with"; Clinton Adams, Printmaking in New Mexico, 1880-1990 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991), 73.

[47] Only those in Texas (San Antonio and Corpus Christi) are illustrated in a book (see footnote 43), and even there, they are hard to appreciate, as the murals lose a great deal, when taken out of their architectural setting and shrunk down to the size of a page.

[48] Both the Georgia Museum of Art and the Roswell Museum and Art Center hold a large number (between them over a thousand) of Cook's drawings.

[49] Flynt, Alabama in the Twentieth Century, 485-86. 

[50] Cook actually mentions being part of the American scene movement; Howard Cook letter to Henry Allen Moe, March 4, 1934.  

[51] Zigrosser, Artist in America, 193.

 

About the exhibtion:

Massachusetts native Howard Cook is one of the most recognized lithographers of the 1930's. He received two Guggenheim fellowships, numerous prizes for his wood block prints and etchings, and a gold medal from the Architectural League of New York and public acclaim at the unveiling of his immense murals in Pittsburgh and San Antonio. His first Guggenheim fellowship took him to Taxco Mexico where he encountered the murals of Diego Rivera. He was inspired to paint a mural of his own at the Hotel Taxqueno showing the lives of common Mexican people.

It was the second Guggenheim fellowship that led him to a year long tour of the South. During this tour he made a great number of studies in the steel mills of Birmingham. Many of the figures studies and scenes were later used as the basis of the great mural of the steel industry he completed in Pittsburgh.

Cook sought to encounter as many rural people and unique aspects of the South as possible on his tour and his time in Alabama filled his notebooks with scenes of baptisms and foot washing rituals as well as cotton picking and other scenes of agricultural toil.

The 45 drawings and 2 prints in the exhibition Howard Cook: Drawings of Alabama, on display at the Mobile Museum of Art January 12 - April 15, 2007, features many drawings never before exhibited, and display Cook's talent for forthright drawings of great solidity and observation. The weather beaten faces and rough clothing of his subjects do not conceal the dignity of people accustomed to self-sufficiency through long toil in the hard times of the Great Depression.

The project was assisted at all stages by the cooperation of William U. Eiland, Director, Georgia Museum of Art and his staff.

 

About the author:

Stephen J. Goldfarb of Atlanta was guest curator for the exhibition Howard Cook: Drawings of Alabama. He holds a Ph.D. in the history of science and technology from Case Western Reserve University and retired from the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library in 2003. His article on the Mobile etcher/artist Marian Acker Macpherson appeared in Alabama Heritage, # 73, Summer 2004. He has also written on New Deal art (primarily post office murals) in Georgia. (biographical infomation from Alabama Heritage, Summer 2006, Issue 81)

 

Editor's note:

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Donan Klooz and Paul Richelson of the Mobile Museum of Art for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text, written in 2006, from the exhibition catalogue.

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