American Women at Work:
Women Printmakers and the Federal Art Project
by Mary Francey
Artists Represented in The Collection
- Mabel Dwight (1896-1955)
- Children's Clinic, 1936
- One of the few artists of the 1930s who did not study
at the Art Students League, Mabel Dwight's work is represented in permanent
collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of
Chicago. She discovered lithography in Paris in 1927, and continued to
work as a printmaker after returning to the United States. A Federal Art
Project artist from 1935 until 1939 she. unlike many of her contemporaries,
had already established a strong professional relationship with galleries
- Although Dwight earned a well deserved reputation for
social satire, the high level of energy in Children's Clinic communicates
more empathy than humor. In her 1936 essay Satire in Art, Dwight
stated she was as interested in the motivation of a gesture as the gesture
itself, a quality that is immediately apparent in this lithograph. The
subject is a well baby clinic for welfare families in which she convincingly
represents the purposeful caring of doctors and nurses, and the apprehension
of mothers, by capturing the authenticity of their gestures.
- The Depression effected a significant improvement in
educational standards for nurses. Before 1930 certified nurses worked almost
exclusively for private patients who could afford their services, while
hospitals and clinics were staffed primarily by student nurses and graduate
certified nurses who were asked to remain in jobs they held as students.
Between 1929 and 1937 the number of graduate nurses in hospitals increased
from 4,000 to 28,000, but their pay was the same as that of student nurses.
However, the quality of care across the country was so clearly improved
by better trained nurses on staff that hospitals and clinics did not revert
to the previous system after the Depression ended.
- If Dwight's Children's Clinic pictures a sense
of confidence in the professional competence of the figures of the doctor
and attending nurses, it is entirely consistent with her humanitarian ideals.
The lithograph also seems to affirm her awareness of the changing standards
of medical care during a bleak period in the country s history.
- Pele DeLappe (1916-2007)
- Street Scene, 1937
- Wanda Gág (1893-1946)
- Progress, 1936
- Wanda Gág grew up in New Ulm, Minnesota, and studied
at the Minnesota School of Art, before a scholarship to the Art Students
League took her to New York City in 1917. Primarily interested in rural
themes and animal subjects, Gág often made satirical comments about
the effects of consumerism on the serenity of small towns. For example,
Progress is a statement about the intrusion of modern urban ideas into
her own tranquil world. She saw humor in the absurdities of the automobiles
that her neighbors suddenly found irresistible, the gasoline they needed,
and the ubiquitous filling stations that sprang up everywhere. She considered
these, along with billboards, alien elements in a rural environment.
- Concerned with the nature of the machine and its effect
on small town American life, Gág charts progress in the evolution
of a first generation car into a newer, more streamlined model. She sees
progress in the unsteady tree destined to become another power pole to
support electrical power lines. Outspoken in her views about cosmetics
and tobacco, Gág uses one billboard to label nail polish Gory and
another to promote the lift one can obtain by smoking Brambles cigarettes.
- The rural American scene has been altered by mechanization,
and we can look forward to inevitable urban blight and polluted air, products
of an increasingly rampant consumerism. Gág couldn't be aware of
the prophetic nature of her print, although she was obviously uneasy about
progress and its side effects.
- Zanna Vanessa Helder (1904-1968)
- On the Farm, 1930
- Riva Helfond (1910-2002)
- Custom Made, 1940
- Born in Brooklyn, Riva Helfond lived and worked in New
York City all her life. Like many of her contemporaries, she studied at
the Art Students League where she worked with Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Morris Kantor,
and Alexander Brook. She was assigned to the Federal Art Project from 1936
until 1941, creating lithographs, etchings, woodcuts, and screen prints.
Appointed to the faculty of the Harlem Community Art Center to teach lithography,
Helfond's students included Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden. Later she
was transferred to the Graphic Arts Division directed by Russell Limbach
where she worked with Louis Lozowick and Jacob Kainen. Still later she
joined the silk screen division supervised by Anthony Velonis and of which
Harry Gottlieb and Elizabeth Olds were founding members.
- Typical of Helfond's work during the 1930s is Custom
Made, a lithograph that shows a woman bending over her work in a WPA
sewing room. Women who qualified for relief could repair and remodel used
clothing or make new garments from surplus materials for distribution to
families on welfare. This work was considered so essential that 56% of
the women employed by the WPA in 1936 worked in sewing rooms, a fact that
prompted a female WPA official to comment: "For unskilled men we have
the shovel, for unskilled women we only have the needle." This and
other of Helfond's lithographs, including Snow Clearing, 1933, Coal
Pickers, 1938 and Miner and Wife, 1937 are statements about
the endless hours of tedious labor, fatigue, and grim determination of
women, coal miners, and unskilled men who gratefully accepted jobs that
often paid as little as five cents an hour or sixteen dollars a week. Overtly
social realist, Helfond's prints add her unique perceptions to our understanding
of the working poor of the New Deal years.
- Riva Helfond
- Miner and Wife, 1937
- Victoria Hutson-Huntley, (1900-1971)
- Skaters, 1936
- Barbara Latham (1896-1989)
- North Carolina Mountain Woman,
- Wood Engraving
- Born in Walpole, Massachusetts, Barbara Latham studied,
like many of her contemporaries, at the Art Students League. She is represented
in the collections of New York s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum
of New Mexico, and the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts among others.
- Latham's North Carolina Mountain Woman typifies
the majority of women in the nation's rural areas during the Depression.
In this engraving, the woman is carding wool, one more chore in the wide
range of duties women routinely did for no pay. Although many rural women
were not even counted for census purposes, all household and domestic chores
were understood to be theirs. In addition, they were expected to work in
the fields helping husbands and fathers who didn't reciprocate by assisting
with cooking, cleaning, milking cows, or any other task define as women
s work. Daughters were expected to assume their share of the workload which
was often so heavy that their schooling attempts either suffered or were
abandoned entirely. Young girls were unpaid domestic servants who were
expected to care for younger siblings and who worked in the fields, planting
and harvesting on demand. In their efforts to escape the rigors of farm
labor, many migrated to cities but found little welcome and few wage earning
jobs in economically depressed urban centers. Inevitably most were compelled
to return to country life where they settled for marriage and a life of
poverty and hard work.
- Like many of her female colleagues, when Latham represented
a woman at work she stated the obvious: both rural and urban women helped
provide necessary support for a faltering economy but their efforts were
of little concern to government agencies or politicians, and were generally
overlooked within their own communities.
- Doris Lee (1905-1983)
- Strawberry Pickers, 1937
- Born in Aledo, Illinois, Doris Emrick Lee's work is often
compared with that of Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Grant
Wood. Like them, she promoted the myth of agrarian American values as the
most effective resistance to the widely perceived threat of European modernist
directions. Lee's works, however, are not self-conscious statements of
nationalist political attitudes in opposition to modernism as many of Benton's
are. Instead, she made a genuine attempt to emulate some authentic qualities
of folk art and to convey the serenity of rural life in contrast to the
anxieties felt by many urbanites during the Depression.
- Unlike those in prints by her urban contemporaries, Lee's
working women are not crowded in a subway car or bent over a typewriter.
Instead they happily engage in unhurried rural tasks such as harvesting
crops or picking berries. Because she was so strongly influenced by folk
art Lee's work is often labeled naive or primitive when in reality it is
an outcome of her training. She graduated from Rockford College, then studied
with Ernest Lawson at the Kansas City Art Institute and later in Paris
with André L Hote. In 1930 she enrolled in Arnold Blanch's class
at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco and, in 1939, married
her teacher. It was Blanch in particular who encouraged her to abandon
the Cubist style she had learned in Paris, but rather to explore ways to
develop a personal visual language.
- Strawberry Pickers may be
derived from a childhood memory. It is a serene, nostalgic scene with none
of the sentimental realism that was so often found in American scene paintings
and prints. Lee's work is not didactic, political, or socially conscious;
instead it evokes shared memories of simple activities and suggests a form
of rural escapism during the Depression.
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