State Library Inventorying WPA Art

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By Tom Newman, State Data Coordinator for the Connecticut State Library

Originally appeared in the March 2009 edition of Connecticut Libraries , a publication of the Connecticut Library Association)

Hollywood movies often show a band of heroes searching for priceless treasures believed lost, stolen, or mythical. Right now, the State Library is on its own quest for treasure, but this time the hoard may be in many different locations. From the early 1930s to the outbreak of World War II, the federal government invested substantial funds in back-to-work programs, including work projects in the arts.

In Connecticut the feds employed 160 Connecticut artists to create over 5,000 pieces of art. About 1,700 of these paintings, murals, and sculptures were allocated to public institutions throughout the state.

Who were these artists and where did their artwork go? Could some of these items still be tucked away or on display in libraries? The Connecticut State Library is trying to answer these and other questions regarding the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) Federal Art Project in Connecticut.

This project was the first time that the federal government had ever made a concerted effort to invest directly in American artistic culture. FDR’s administration set up Federal Theater, Music, Dance, and Writers Projects, as well as an Art Project. Their intention was to put creative people to work, and in the case of the Art Project, this meant employing painters, sculptors, photographers (to photograph the art work), and carpenters (to build frames). Some of the artists would enjoy great success and others would disappear--along with much of the artwork.

State Archivist Mark Jones is in charge of the WPA Inventory Project. With special legislative funding, he began working with the Federal Art Project records now housed in the State Archives. These records include artist cards that list much of the artwork created by individuals. Although there is some information available about which public institutions received the artwork, not all the art went to institutions, and some of the art produced by the project is not accounted for in the records.

During the summer of 2008, Nolan Pelletier, an intern and art student, assisted Jones in entering available information into databases with the intention of creating a searchable Internet record. This resource will include the information on the artist cards as well as digital versions of the black and white photographs taken of the artwork by project photographers.

Jones and his staff have also done considerable research on the artists employed during the WPA program Consulting directories, databases, art museums, newspapers, and other resources, he is compiling short biographical profiles on as many artists as he can identify. This added information will make the eventual internet resource an invaluable tool for art students and historians in Connecticut.

Beatrice Laving Cuming (1903 1974), for example, studied painting in Paris during the 1920s and spent much of her life traveling to places where she considered the landscape inspiring. Employed for several years by the art project, she would go on to paint in Texas and New Mexico, would write a book about travels in North Africa, and would design her own home in New London, Connecticut.

Vito Covelli (1882-1958) was born in Italy and found much success as a landscape painter in New York City. He and his wife, a renowned opera singer, moved to a secluded rural property in Barkhamsted where Vito painted and his wife composed music and wrote poetry. The Covellis called their home a “National Rural Art Museum,” where visitors stopped to see the “hundreds” of paintings in their house.

John Steuart Curry (1897- 1946) and James Henry Daugherty (1887 1974) were critically acclaimed and internationally known artists. Curry lived for some time in Westport, painting murals there before leaving the project in 1936. His last great murals, painted in 1943 at the Kansas State House, would create such controversy for their depiction of the Civil War era “Bloody Kansas” that he was not allowed to finish them. Curry died shortly thereafter.

Daugherty would enjoy a longer life and spent much more time in Connecticut, living in Westport and Weston. Daugherty is well known for his Depression-era murals, one of which was saved from destruction during a renovation project at the Stamford High School when a passing bicyclist found the mural canvases in the trash.

Unfortunately, other WPA artwork that found itself in the trash probably did not benefit from a similar rescue. The State Library’s inventory seeks to identify the location of as much of the surviving artwork as possible. The State Library itself has about 50 items in its collections, including at least one painting recovered recently from a Hartford area school and about 30 others that had ended up in state surplus.

Jones is quick to point out that the State Library has no intention of recovering the art for state ownership. Rather, the project hopes to locate and photograph as much of the artwork as possible, especially those pieces that found their way to public institutions in Connecticut, so that digital photographs can be made available online.

What public institutions? Generally the WPA project allocated artwork to courthouses, state hospitals, sanatoriums, post offices, schools, and libraries. Many public institutions that received artwork no longer exist or have moved to new facilities. So, even if their artwork was not originally intended for a library, some of it may now reside in the local library.

How would you know if the artwork in your library is from the WPA project? There may be a label somewhere on the frame (if the frame is original) or on the back of the artwork. If so, a call to Mark Jones will help provide verification.

Generally the project managers of the 1930s were looking for art that was pleasing to the eye. Don’t expect to find much of the era’s surrealist art, though some of this art did get commissioned as part of the project. Artists were more likely to create social realist art, and often painted landscapes, still lifes, and depictions of transportation, sports, or school subjects. At least one artist chose the Merritt Parkway as the main subject for his paintings.

What makes the WPA Federal Art Project so important in Connecticut? Nothing like it had been done before or since, which makes the State Library’s inventory project important in understanding Connecticut’s Depression era art history. For more information about the CSL inventory project, visit the the WPA project, or call Mark Jones, state archivist, at 860-757 6511.