American Women at Work: Women Printmakers and the Federal Art Project

by Mary Francey



Artists Represented in The Collection

Page 2

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 and collectors.
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, ca 1930
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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