Rife on Bullock, 'New Deal Art in the Northwest: The WPA and Beyond'

Margaret Bullock, ed. New Deal Art in the Northwest: The WPA and Beyond. Tacoma: Tacoma Art Museum, 2020. Illustrations. 239 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-924335-48-8

Reviewed by Michaela Rife (University of Michigan)
Published on H-Environment (September, 2022)
Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58093

In the United States, we are surrounded by the visual and material culture of the New Deal. However, it can be easy to overlook such evidence—whether in a weathered sidewalk bearing a Works Progress Administration (WPA) stamp or an unobtrusive plaque on a public artwork that has become invisible through familiarity. New Deal Art in the Northwest: The WPA and Beyond shines a bright light on the visible, the obscured, the forgotten, and even the unrealized in (what the government defined as) Region 16: Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. New Deal Art in the Northwest is the catalog for the Tacoma Art Museum’s 2020 exhibition, Forgotten Stories: Northwest Public Art of the 1930s, curated by Margaret Bullock, who also serves as the editor and primary author for the catalog. The book’s origin in an art exhibition is evident in its rich and abundant illustrations (particularly precious for New Deal material, which often lacks quality reproductions), but it is much more than a record or companion for Forgotten Stories. Instead, the book serves as a thorough primer for not only the Northwest but also New Deal culture on a national level by offering clear summaries of arts programs.

The New Deal can be a challenging period because of its labyrinthine administrative structures (alluded to by the subtitle “WPA and Beyond”), but Bullock and her coauthors deftly budget their space between readable histories of different programs, more general discussion of the period, and detailed engagement with a few specific objects and sites. This balance is achieved, in part, through the overall structure of the book. Following an introduction that summarizes the history of both the material at hand and the exhibition project, the first two chapters outline the context of New Deal art in the Northwest, specifically cultural programs’ relationship to the surrounding Great Depression and the wide range of style and mediums within the visual arts of the Northwest (with plenty of illustrative examples). Chapters 3, 4, and 5 each survey the New Deal’s major visual art programs: the Public Works of Art Project, the Treasury Relief Art Project, the Section of Fine Arts, and the Federal Art Project. Each chapter is also further divided between the four states of Region 16. As in the first section, these middle chapters are accessibly written with abundant examples. The sixth and final chapter is split into seven short texts by different authors that engage with New Deal art from a contemporary lens (conservation, for example). This organization and pacing make New Deal Art in the Northwest an enjoyable read, and scholars across the humanities (along with a general readership) will find much to appreciate within its pages. For the purposes of this H-Net network, however, the remainder of this review will focus on environmental angles.

None of the individual texts in New Deal Art in the Northwest are explicitly framed around environmental topics; however, readers with an eye for environmental topics will find their interest piqued frequently. For example, industry is a common subject in New Deal art and California artist Fletcher Martin’s controversial mural depicting a mine rescue in Kellogg, Idaho, appears throughout the text. In Sharon Ann Musher’s “Art in a Time of Need,” Martin’s 1940-41 Mine Rescue introduces artistic controversies but also illuminates the tensions over the representation of place and work, with unionized miners supporting the tense scene but local mining officials rejecting it. Ultimately, Martin turned to a common post office mural subject: an anodyne scene of a prospector “discovering” gold. The Kellogg controversy appears again in the next chapter, Roger Hull’s “Aesthetic Diversity and the Art of Hard Times,” as an example of a modernist mural rejected in favor of a more realist style and “a situation that makes clear that politics and power could thwart good art within the New Deal” (p. 36). Finally, the conflict appears again in chapter 4, where Bullock outlines the program that birthed the Kellogg commission: the Section of Fine Arts. The story surrounding the fate of Mine Rescue and what it can tell us about life, work, and memory in a New Deal mining community is just one moment that calls for more discussion.

Though discussions of specific artworks can be cursory—brevity necessitated by the sheer volume of material covered in the book—environmentally minded scholars will find many leads for further investigation. The lumber industry, for example, appears in virtually every chapter, from Carl Morris’s 1943 Lumber, an energetic sawmill mural for Eugene, Oregon (chapters 2 and 4), to Irvin Shope’s 1934 six-panel mural series on the history of lumber for the Gifford Pinchot Hall of Forestry at the University of Montana (chapter 3). In chapter 4, Bullock offers a compelling comparison between two different skid road murals for the logging towns of Shelton and Snohomish, Washington. Moving beyond painted post office murals, Aimee Gorham’s massive 1938 forest-themed wood marquetry panels for the lobby of Oregon State University’s Forestry Department (made under the Federal Art Project, chapter 5) were designed to highlight Oregon’s commercial woods. Such a project introduces pressing questions about both the depiction of an industry and the enlistment of its very material for artistic promotion. Readers can follow that line of inquiry to conservator Nina Olsson’s text in chapter 6, which discusses the materials and conservation challenges (including environmental factors) of Gorham’s marquetry.

Over two hundred pages of text are filled with objects that demand further attention from environmental scholars. Kenneth Callahan’s 1939-40 Fishing mural for Anacortes, Washington, depicts a bird’s-eye view of men at work on boats in swirling, dark water. Z. Vanessa Helder’s 1940 watercolor of the Grand Coulee Dam, produced while she was an instructor at the Federal Art Project-funded Spokane Art Center, and a photograph of a Washington Federal Art Project-funded model of the Diablo Dam demonstrate how artists reckoned with New Deal infrastructure. Arthur Clough’s 1934 Oregon Vistas, a wood triptych for the University of Oregon’s library, depicts Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) activity against a backdrop of the Cascade Mountains and is still in place today, while the thirty images that Edmond Fitzgerald created as an embedded artist with the CCC camp in Point Defiance Park, Tacoma, in March 1935 are now missing. At the University of Washington, artists employed by the Public Works of Art Project produced geological drawings and hand-colored lantern slides.

The above examples are but a fraction of the intriguing stories contained in New Deal Art in the Northwest. Scholars from across the environmental humanities will undoubtedly find even more topics of interest. The first five chapters are all engaging, but, due to the amount of material, readers may find themselves longing for closer attention to specific topics (a challenge for most New Deal scholarship). To satisfy the desire for prolonged discussion, the short texts in chapter 6, “The New Deal Art Projects: Contemporary Encounters,” are highlights. For example, Philip Stevens (San Carlos Apache) offers a necessary counterpoint to the depictions of Indigenous people in settler murals in Idaho, especially in contrast to Andrew Standing Soldier’s (Oglala Lakota) murals for Blackfoot, Idaho, and their relationship to place. Tiffany Stith Cooper’s examination of Minor White’s time with the Federal Art Project in Portland is a compelling glimpse into the famed photographer’s work capturing the cast-iron-fronted buildings of the city’s waterfront that were slated for removal due to the Willamette River’s regular flooding. Cooper’s text, like many in the book, is exciting because it leaves readers wanting to know more about, for example, White’s relationship to the demolition’s opposition and his upcoming work on the Bonneville Power Administration film Hydro (1939). For readers wanting to embark on their own research, the book ends with an incredible resource: two appendices listing the artists employed by New Deal projects in the Northwest and an extensive list of commissions by state and project. In conclusion, New Deal Art in the Northwest is a monumental achievement and a valuable resource for the humanities, most obviously for art historians and scholars of the New Deal era, but, for environmentally minded scholars, it is also an invitation to a wealth of engaging material that deserves further attention.

Citation: Michaela Rife. Review of Bullock, Margaret, ed., New Deal Art in the Northwest: The WPA and Beyond. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. September, 2022.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58093

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