Women’s Work

A new show at the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens shines light on unheralded work by women artists of the WPA.

by Andrew Alexander

June 20, 2019

Featured image: Lucienne Bloch. Detroit, Detail, 1932. Lithograph on paper. (Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia; Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Vic Zink)

The Great Depression was not an easy time to be a woman artist. A married woman doing any kind of work outside the home was perceived as frivolously taking opportunity away from “a real breadwinner,” i.e. a man supporting his family. Unmarried women, if they could find work at all, were most often shunted into low-paying, low-status jobs while being told that higher-paying, more fulfilling, or more creative work simply wasn’t appropriate for their sex.

In 1935, the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, established by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, began employing millions of job-seekers, mostly men, to carry out public works projects. (Prominent projects in Atlanta included improvements to Piedmont Park and the construction of many buildings at Georgia Tech). Through a much smaller subsidiary program, Federal Project Number One, the WPA employed musicians, artists, writers, actors, and directors in arts, drama, media, and literacy projects.

The number of women employed through the WPA was relatively small, but the program did provide an unusual window of opportunity during the seven years of its existence: a chance for many women to earn a stable living through creative work.  The WPA and Federal Art Project provided women and their art the same consideration as their male counterparts, an equity that did not necessarily exist prior to the New Deal, or even afterwards.

A new exhibition at the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens, Women of the WPA, offers a fascinating glimpse into the wide range of work created by women through the program, work that points to a burgeoning spirit of independence, experimentation, and political engagement.

The show was curated by GMA Deputy Director Annelies Mondi almost entirely from works in the museum’s permanent collection, which does not focus specifically on women, but is particularly strong in this time period.

Mary E. Hutchinson, Two of Them, 1933, oil on canvas, private collection (Installation view by Andrew Alexander)

Entering the gallery, I found myself immediately captivated by Mary E. Hutchinson’s beautiful painting, one of the first works a visitor is likely to encounter in the show. In an appealingly sparse, volumetric style, the artist captures a strikingly beautiful young couple in a moment of quiet drama. There are few narrative details, but any number of stories is suggested by the haunting little scene and its open-ended title: Two of Them. Their clothing and the bit of landscape behind them suggest rural poverty, and the tightly closed trunk behind the young man (and his own tightly closed-off expression) suggest a difficult decision made during difficult times. Her hand gently resting on his shoulder, her maturely determined gaze, which seems to be focusing meditatively just beyond him, her dignity, and her quiet but comforting presence (none of which seem to be easing the situation) all create a darkly brooding, troubled, but touching mood.  

I was especially intrigued to learn that the artist was from Atlanta. Little is known about Mary E. Hutchinson, but the New Georgia Encyclopedia fortunately does have an excellent new summary of available information written by Dr. Jae Miller, who recently wrote her doctoral thesis at Emory University on the overlooked artist.

Hutchinson was born in 1906 in Massachusetts, but grew up in Atlanta where both her parents were teachers. Her family probably wasn’t wealthy, but Mary did attend Washington Seminary, an elite private school for girls where her mother taught poetry and oratory. Hutchinson eventually studied art at Agnes Scott College and had her first exhibition as a student in 1925. Atlanta newspapers covered the show, held in the windows of the Henry Grady Hotel, as part of an ongoing push to demonstrate the need for an art museum in the city. (The High Museum of Art was created the following year, in 1926, when Harriet Harwell Wilson High donated her family’s Peachtree Street residence to be used as a museum).

In 1926, Hutchinson received a scholarship to the National Academy of Design in New York. From 1926 to 1945, she lived, studied, and worked in New York, participating in WPA programs from their inception in the 1930s and teaching art at the Harlem Community Art Center.

In 1945, she returned to Atlanta to work at the High Museum’s incipient art school, which eventually became the Atlanta Art Institute. In 1950, amid circumstances that remain somewhat murky, she suddenly left the institution and withdrew from the mainstream Atlanta art community. The fact that Hutchinson’s intimate and romantic relationships were primarily with other women during the conservative 1940s and 50s in the American South caused me to speculate about a possible narrative of secrecy or social ostracization. She died in Atlanta in 1970.  

Elizabeth Olds, Miner Joe, n.d. Lithograph on paper. Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia; Transferred from the University of Georgia Library. GMOA 1969.2482

Many of the works in the exhibition, and the stories behind them, are equally compelling. Artist Lucienne Bloch apprenticed with Diego Rivera. When the Mexican muralist was working in Detroit along with his wife, Frida Kahlo, Bloch visited them, creating a number of stunning lithographs of city scenes. A memorable one shows a group of boys fishing Huck Finn-style on the banks of the Detroit River, the vast belching wasteland of smokestacks, factories, and industrial ships just beyond them.

Eleanor Coen’s 1939 lithograph Surface Travel shows a somewhat frightening, expressionist urban subway scene, all sharp angles and claustrophobic, almost gothic, enclosure, presided over by a small but strangely menacing figure in uniform. The wall text details that Coen and her husband Max Kahn helped pioneer the use of color lithography in the 20th century. She became the first woman to work for the Taller de Grafica Popular, the renowned, politically progressive Mexican print collective.

Marie Bleck, Muskie Fishermen, 1937. Linoleum block print on rice paper. Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia; Transferred from the University of Georgia Libraries. GMOA 1969.2400.

The museum shows ten lithographs by New Jersey artist Minetta Good. Her extraordinary images of daily scenes from the industrial Taylor-Wharton Iron and Steel Company, which produced railroad fittings, axles, and wheels, capture the majesty, ingenuity, and enormity of the work, along with something of the way it dwarfed the human beings involved. Political activist Blanche Mary Grambs created more than 30 prints for the WPA, including the somber and ominous scene of miners going to work shown in the exhibition. Early in her career, artist Dorothy Jeakins painted animated cells for Walt Disney and later went on to design costumes for Hollywood (including for Marilyn Monroe in Niagara), but there’s no touch of the Mouse or Marilyn in her menacing depiction of Vultures at Tejon from 1936.

Doris Lee’s large, colorful, hopeful, and celebratory painting creates a very different, presiding mood in the gallery’s second room. In a huge group scene, Lee depicts a boisterous beach party with herself and her husband, artist Arnold Blanch, dancing at the center. People of all ages, women and men of all classes, from all walks of life, harmoniously enjoy an outrageously carefree, sunny afternoon of music near an almost comically tiny sand beach beside an otherwise drearily workaday seaside town.

Ethel Magafan, November Leaves, n.d., Drypoint on paper (Installation view by Andrew Alexander)

Mondi says that curating the show, which greatly expands on a show she did about 15 years ago for the Roy C. Moore Gallery at Gainesville State College (now the University of North Georgia), has been a process of discovery. Much of the work hadn’t been exhibited in years; original labels adhered to the backs of works with glue had in some cases become visible on the front. In several instances, Mondi says, names were misspelled in the archived information, and creating the show involved a process of connecting correct names with other existing information to finally tell a more complete story.

The show Women of the WPA, along with the concurrent Larger Than Life: Mural Studies consisting of mural studies created for the WPA, runs through September 8. Both anticipate the July 6 opening of a larger show, Celebrating Heroes: American Mural Studies of the 1930s and 1940s, with 50 drawings that provide a close look at the process of artists who competed for New Deal mural commissions in the 1930s and 1940s.

Andrew Alexander is an Atlanta-based writer and founder of The Alexander Report.

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