When Uncle Sam Played Patron Of The Arts: Memoirs Of A Wpa Painter


The Roosevelts’ humanitarianism was a more serious matter. Another man who could call at the White House at will was Harry Hopkins, with whom Mrs. Roosevelt had been associated in welfare work in New York City. I believe it was on Hopkins’ advice that the other art project of the New Deal, the Federal Art Project, was organized under the Works Progress Administration. The national emergency was critical; it was urgently necessary to put unemployed Americans to work for wages; a pump-priming operation was required. But highways and dams and bridges, schools and hospitals, require long and careful planning before men can be employed to build them. Hopkins knew that there was one segment of the population that could go to work tomorrow—the artists. They didn’t require a capital outlay. They already had paints and brushes of a sort, and they carried the plans for their next painting in their heads.

One day I received a call saying that Mrs. Audrey McMahon, the director of the New York WPA Federal Art Project, wanted to see me. Mrs. McMahon was a formidable person—as indeed she had to be to ride the whirlwind of these projects—and it was no joke for an artist to be called to her office. I was scared. The Federal Art Project was now my sole means of livelihood. It was more. It was my life as artist and mural painter.

Mrs. McMahon told me that Hideo Noda, a young Japanese who had been assigned to make sketches for a long wall in the Administration Building at Ellis Island, had disappeared without leaving any word. Hideo, a gentle boy of poetic temperament, had found the resident commissioner of immigration impossible to cope with and in despair had run away. “The commissioner is difficult,” Mrs. McMahon added, and I thought to myself .that if she thought so, he must be a dragon. She went on to tell me that Ellis Island was important to the whole project. She had secured the commissioner’s consent to look at sketches, on approval. The Administration Building at Ellis Island was federal property, and it offered possibilities of more than one mural series. A number of artists had already been assigned to Noda as “assistants,” and their jobs were in jeopardy. Would I take on this assignment? It wasn’t, of course, a request, it was a command, but I accepted with alacrity.

I was asked to meet with the artists who had been assigned to Noda’s project as assistants. It was an awkward moment. The Federal Art Project was a relief project. WPA regulations required that three fourths of the artists employed by it be drawn from the relief rolls. For an indigent artist not to be accepted for employment by the Art Project meant work as a ditchdigger or leaf raker, and Mrs. McMahon’s office made every possible effort to give employment to every qualified artist. In practice this presented administrative problems. The whole New Deal had a bad press, and no part of it was subjected to such constant abuse as the Art Project. Most of the newspapers and magazines in America were Republican and anti-Roosevelt, and they made what capital they could out of traditional American Philistinism. The Art Projects were scorned as “boondoggling.” Under this constant and relentless attack it was necessary to develop work projects that could be defended as “worthwhile.” For the project to have sent every artist home to paint his own pictures his own way without supervision or accountability would have invited disaster. Mural projects were a little less liable to charges of boondoggling than easel painting. They were relatively public and subject to scrutiny and criticism. In the early days of the Art Project this led to a certain amount of padding where the personnel of mural projects was concerned.

When I met with the artists who had been assigned to Noda as Ellis Island “assistants,” they were wary of me at first. Their looks told me that they wondered if I would be such a damned fool as to ask them to work for me (even this one ritualistic meeting was a tribulation for them—it required them to leave their easels and waste an afternoon uptown), but we all played it straight. I told them I looked forward to a pleasant and productive association, and we went our various ways. I believe it’s a fair measure of the situation I am describing to recall that two of these “assistants” were the distinguished painters Joseph Solman and Herman Rose.

I went out to Ellis Island to look at the walls in the Aliens’ Dining Room, avoiding any contact with the commissioner, and began to make sketches. The project let me pick a couple of assistants of my own, James Rutledge and Etta Pick, and they sent me a model, Albert Soroka. In the beginning Jimmy and Etta busied themselves in the research I had to do. The Ellis Island dining room was a hundred feet long, and I undertook to depict along one of the long walls the role of the immigrant in the development of America. It meant learning how railroads were built and sawmills were operated and coal was mined and steel was manufactured.