Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on November 10, 2009 with permission of the author and the Long Beach Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Long Beach Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


Surviving Hard Times: WPA Artists

by Sue Ann Robinson


The legacy of Federal New Deal art is best known throughout Southern California in the architectural sculpture and murals commissioned by the Federal government to enhance public buildings. In Long Beach this includes schools, the Main Library, the Long Beach Airport, and the imposing Long Beach Recreation mural downtown. What is less well-known are the large numbers of artists employed in the United States to produce easel paintings. This segment of the New Deal is a visual and cultural legacy that is less publicly visible, but no less valuable in understanding America's great experiment in patronage of the arts. Surviving Hard Times: WPA Artists presents a local twist on the history of New Deal art in Southern California. All of the works in Surviving Hard Times are either from the New Deal easel painting program, or, are works that were produced by artists who were supported across the country in New Deal programs. The exhibition illuminates the great diversity of artists who were able to survive and continue their careers as artists after the Great Depression thanks in some measure to their employment in a Federal art program.

In two of the three galleries are works of art on long-term loan from the General Services Administration. These pieces represent works that were originally loaned to the City of Long Beach or some agency of the City like the Harbor Department. Since the 1940s, these paintings have been added to the Museum's collection for safe-keeping, conservation, and exhibition. In 2007, while conducting a City-wide inventory of artworks, New Deal paintings were discovered. Rescued from storage closets in numerous offices, they can now be seen and enjoyed in the Museum's galleries. They include two distinctive watercolor paintings of the Southern California coast by Dana Bartlett, and large painting, California Mountain Trail by F. Grayson Sayre. Sayre eventually settled in Glendale, California, and was a charter member of the Painters and Sculptors Club of Los Angeles where he served as president in 1929. He was employed during the New Deal and painted extensively throughout the mountains and deserts of California and the southwest. (image attached)

When easel paintings from the New Deal were being distributed at the end of the program, the selections made by the City of Long Beach were largely landscape paintings. Employed by the Federal government, painters were hired for $24 to $34 per week and produced works in their studios or as a result of their travels. In California, many easel painters focused on their beautiful surroundings, like George Henry Melcher (1881 ­ 1957). Melcher moved to Southern California in 1907 and set up Melcher & Co. in Hollywood. In 1907 he homesteaded 120 acres in the Santa Monica Mountains where built his home and studio, Roseneath Ranch. Melcher painted throughout Southern California and even set up a roadside stand in Topanga Canyon to sell small landscape paintings as "art souvenirs" in 1923. During the New Deal he was employed as an easel painter. Surviving Hard Times includes thirteen paintings by Melcher along with photographs of his Roseneath Ranch.

The third gallery of Surviving Hard Times does not include New Deal art, but does present the broad artistic reach that the Federal Art Programs had across America. On view are works from the Museum's permanent collection by artists who supported themselves by working for a Federal program either as a muralist, a teacher, administrator, and/or an easel painter. Well-known artists from Southern California who were active in the mural program include Lorser Feitleson and Helen Lundeberg. Artists who created murals in Long Beach include Grace Clements (1905-1969) (image attached) who created murals and mosaics for the Long Beach Airport, fully documented in California Arts and Architecture (December 1942), and Albert King who developed the tiles for the large-scale mural Long Beach Recreation, which originally graced the 1932 Municipal Auditorium. Originally proposed by Henry Nord, it was redesigned and realized by Albert King and Stanton Macdonald-Wright. Enormous in scale -- 466,000 tiles, over 800 square feet -- it can still be enjoyed in downtown Long Beach.

Artists among the thirty-three represented in Surviving Hard Times and whose greater body of work was made outside of California include Emil Bisttram (image attached) of Taos, New Mexico, who was a supervisor for Treasury Relief Act Project in New Mexico, and Modernist Werner Drewes (1899-1985), who taught printmaking at the Brooklyn Museum and was the Technical Supervisor of the TAP's Graphics Division from 1941-42. More typical of the times' gritty industrial subject matter are two prints by Harry Sternberg and Lois Lozowick.

Each of the works in the exhibition is accompanied by a brief description of what could easily have developed into a full-length saga of inspirational stories of artists surviving the Great Depression. African-American artist Curtis Tann, interviewed by Karen Anne Mason in 1995 for UCLA's Oral History program, described the circumstances of his Federal support teaching for the WPA. Tann declined a scholarship to Fisk University in order to help support his family during the Depression. As a high school student in Cleveland, Tann relates that he "put on a hat, which made me look older, and went down to the board of education and applied for a job on WPA teaching arts and crafts at Hiram House. . . . I was very young. I looked like I was thirty. I really did; I looked thirty. I looked old. And I got the job. I was making -- Oh, my goodness, I was making more money than my father, more than I had even dreamed about making. I made $95.50 a month." (image attached)

Concurrently with Surviving Hard Times: WPA Artists the Museum presents two other exhibitions: Sweet Subversives: Contemporary California Drawings and 3133º Fahrenheit. A large portrait drawing of Emerson Woelffer by Kent Twitchell, included in the Museum's permanent collection, bridges the contemporary drawing exhibition with the other exhibitions. Woelffer (1914- 2003), another Midwestern artist who moved to Los Angeles, is widely considered the "grandfather of L.A. Modernism." Woelffer, whose painting is included in 3133º Fahrenheit, joined the WPA Arts Program in 1938. Although small in number compared to the over 100,000 artworks commissioned during the New Deal, Surviving Hard Times: WPA Artists is filled with stories from across the country of the far reaching impact of the New Deal art programs on American art.

-- Sue Ann Robinson, Director of Collections, Long Beach Museum of Art, October 2009.


About the exhibition Surviving Hard Times: WPA Artists

Surviving Hard Times: WPA Artists is being held at the Long Beach Museum of Art, 2300 E. Ocean Blvd, Long Beach, CA 90803 from October 9, 2009 through January 17, 2010.


Images of selected artworks for Surviving Hard Times: WPA Artists



(above: Emil Bisttram (1895-1976), Atonement,1943, Graphite on paper, 23-1/4 x 17-1/4 inches. Long Beach Museum of Art, Gift of Elisabeth W. Dentzel in memory of Carl S. Dentzel)


(above: F. Grayson Sayre (1879-1939), Mesquite Wood Train, ca. 1937, Oil on canvas, 36 x 40 inches. Long Beach Museum of Art. Courtesy of the Fine Arts Program, Public Buildings Service, U.S. General Services Administration, Commissioned through the New Deal art projects)


(above: Grace Clements (1905-1969), Three Salmon,ca. 1940, Study for The Mosaic Mural for Long Beach Airport, Gouache on paper, 13-7/8 x 16-1/8 inches. Long Beach Museum of Art, Purchased with funds contributed by Ewel and June Grossberg)


(above: Curtis Tann (1915-1992), Untitled Urban Scene,1958, Enamel on copper, 12 x 8-3/4 inches. Long Beach Museum of Art, Gift of Annemarie Davidson)


Editor's note:

The above essay was reprinted on November 10, 2009 in Resource Library with permission of the author and the Long Beach Museum of Art, dated November 4, 2009.

For biographical information on artists referenced in this essay please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists

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