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


While I was working on my sketches, another assistant was assigned to my project, a charming girl I’ll call Helen. I wasn’t aware that I needed her—but that’s how much I knew. When I had completed designs for half the episodes I hoped to represent, I rolled them up and headed for the commissioner’s office on the island. Helen went along for the ride. It was a delightful trip across the harbor and Helen’s interest and curiosity helped to calm my jitters, but the venture nearly ended in disaster. The commissioner was a big, gruff man with a red face and white hair. He scowled at me when I approached his desk. It was bad enough that I was a boondoggling artist, but I took what comfort I could in the fact that at least I wasn’t Japanese. The commissioner allowed me to unroll my sketches. He looked at them and growled, “You don’t know much about railroading, and you don’t know a damned thing about coal mining!” He began to shout. He turned purple. I muttered, “Yes, Mr. Commissioner, yes,” and was prepared to be thrown bodily out of his office, when Helen maneuvered around the side of his desk, caught his eye, and said with a sweet smile and fluttering lashes, “But we’re only trying to please you , Mr. Commissioner.” To my amazement, he went to pieces completely. All his bluster vanished. He turned to me and said, “They didn’t use clean-cut railroad ties in 1869. They left the bark on them. And go home and study up on coal mining.” I said I would do that and be back soon. Helen smiled at him, and we departed. After that, I never went back to the island without her.

I completed my series of designs, a sequence of areas between and above the windows of the dining room, and went back to Ellis Island. I wanted the commissioner’s approval of the general plan. I meant to tell him at once that I hadn’t yet had time to make the revisions he had demanded, but he didn’t wait for explanations. “Now that’s more like it!” he roared. “Now you’ve got it!”

I painted the Ellis Island murals on canvas in my own quarters on East Seventeenth Street. My wife and I occupied a top-floor loft for which we paid forty dollars a month. The place had two skylights in the roof and banks of iron pipes that kept us snugly warm from Monday morning through Friday afternoon. For winter weekends there was a potbellied stove and a big coal bin for which I carried coal up four flights of stairs. A young cabinet maker, Giorgio Cavallon, who was employed by the project as a carpenter, built me a sturdy, movable partition on which I stretched my canvas. This marvelous contraption took up most of our living quarters. I could have done the work directly on the wall at Ellis Island, of course, but the inconvenience of eating and sleeping with my mural seemed better than being under the surveillance of the terrible-tempered commissioner.

Etta and Jimmy pulverized pigments with a muller on the top of a big marble-slabbed butcher’s table we’d picked up at a Village auction, and laid ground colors on the canvas. At noon we’d stop for an hour for lunch at a table near the window. We would discuss the mural, which crowded over us while we ate. Albert, my model, would ask us to criticize one of the paintings he had made at home and brought in for our consideration. One day he said to me, “If you would recommend me to the office as an artist, and ask for me as an assistant , I would be glad to go on posing for you until the mural is finished, and you wouldn’t have these interruptions when they make me go pose for someone else.” I took his paintings to the project office and said that here was someone who should be granted an artist’s status. This was agreed to, and I had a first-rate model—and student—until the Ellis Island mural was finished.

We finished the painting and asked the commissioner to come in to inspect the work—as much of it as we could stretch out for his inspection in the limited space on Seventeenth Street. He brought his daughter with him. Away from his territory and as a visitor to mine , he was graciousness itself. He might have been Charles V in Titian’s studio. Arrangements were made for the installation of the canvases at Ellis Island.

Raphael Doktor, the project’s “technical director,” and his crew met me in the Ellis Island dining room on a Thursday morning. I had asked him to use white lead as the adhesive for mounting the canvas on the plaster walls, but Doktor dismissed this as old-fashioned. He assured me that he had a new plastic adhesive of superior quality. His men prepared the walls and proceeded to apply the miracle glue. By the end of the day’s work about one fourth of the mural had been fixed to the wall and trimmed in the corners and around doors and windows. All looked well, and I went home in high spirits.