Notes from the New Deal: The WPA Artists of Provincetown
Cape Cod Life / Arts Annual September 1997 / Art & Entertainment, History, People & Businesses
Writer: Tony Vevers / Photographer:
This article originally appeared in Cape Cod LIFE Arts Annual, 1997. Photography courtesy of Provincetown Art Association & Museum
These days, with right-wing political heat on the National Endowment for the Arts, government support for struggling artists seems all but a lost cause. There was a time in Washington, however, when assistance for the arts—under the aegis of the Works Progress Administration (WPA)—was an ongoing concern.
As part of the Roosevelt Administration’s New Deal in 1935, the WPA provided what is now called “workfare” for jobless workers. Artists were included in this aid through the Federal Art Project (FAP). Locally, the program was initiated in Massachusetts in October 1935, and a number of Cape Cod artists benefited from it. Under the FAP, artists received $20-$25 a week plus a materials allowance. Some worked in their studios, while others created murals for schools and other municipal buildings.
The Artist Supervisor
The artist supervisor for Southeast Massachusetts was Vernon Smith, who lived in Orleans. He came from upstate New York and had studied at the New York School of Fine and Applied Art. Following active service in France during World War I, he studied art in Paris for two years. Then, he settled in Provincetown, where he worked with Charles Hawthorne, founder of the Cape Cod School of Art. In 1921 he moved to Orleans, serving for some time as art teacher in the local schools.
The supervisor’s duties included registering the qualified artists, initiating their work cards, checking on their progress, and finally, picking up finished work for allocation in schools and other public buildings. A diligent administrator, Smith copiously noted the qualifications and work habits of his artist-clients along with personal notes on each individual. These notes occasionally went beyond the bounds of objective biography to acrimonious limits. Because of Smith’s subjectivity, his comments now provide a candid record of one artist’s opinions about his talented peers during a historic period in American art.
Smith’s artist-client work cards for the area included such well-known Provincetown artists as Blanche Lazzell, Edith Hughes, Dorothy Loeb, Bruce McKain, Vernon Coleman, Charles Heinz, Charles Kaeselau, Fritz Pfeiffer, Phillip Malicoat, and George Yater, many of whom he must have known as friends when he lived in Provincetown. Vernon Smith’s daughter, Sara Smith Joy, remembers accompanying her father on his trips to check on his artist-clients. She found most of them cordial, although she had an uneasy reaction to Blanche Lazzell, who seemed “strange” to the young child. She did not know that Lazzell had a hearing problem, a fact duly noted by smith on l.azzell’s card: “Stone Deaf.” He also found her “a steady worker, and a credit to the program.”
A typical work card with entries by Smith and his co-supervisor Lester B. Bridaham (L.B.B.) reads:
son-in-law to Mary Heaton Vorse
a good painter and cooperative.
Is willing to speak at Barn. H.S. [Barnstable High School] for me March 17th.
May 16, 1937 Now on the Project—L.B.B. a very able painter, saw lots of his work recent and older—has sent to Corcoran. Does American scene well—genre—interested in pool hall types, mugs and prize fighters—a good craftsman as shown in oils and drawings. In every way a credit to the project.
Needs no attention—L.B.B.—a nice interesting person.
9/23/37 His work is now down at MILCH Galleries, New York.
He is a friend of John Whorf.
Smith said of one artist, “this work pleased me very much at first but while I still like it, on the whole it doesn’t stand the test of familiarity, it seems somewhat superficial… I find he wishes to avoid any publicity of the fact the he is on WPA. I even think he would be against WPA show in Provincetown in order not to have it known in town the he is among those chosen. Cashes his checks at the bank.”
Another client was noted as: “Earnest and industrious, but not especially skillful maritime painter. Means well. Doing mural for Hyannis—not especially good. Avoid future commissions of this nature.” Conversely, in 1937 Smith found the artist Bruce McKain to be “a young painter of considerable ability.”
“A Good Painter, but Temperamental”
An artist named Robert Rogers was found to be a problem by his supervisors. In early 1935 he was viewed as “a good painter, but temperamental. Takes himself too seriously … Requires too much attention, and needs occasional snubbing.” Smith said his “canvas[es] … seem extremely youthful but not in the joyous sense.” Later in the year, Smith went on to write, “This painter bores me more each time I see him and his work. I begin to fear that there is little hope for anyone who takes himself so seriously.” Later Smith wrote: “Still puzzles me he is so good and so very bad.”
A week later, Smith wrote, “Demands constant attention and writes voluminously to me and office … thinks a great deal about his ‘rights’.” A notation in 1937 stated: “needs restraint and watching.” Also, “Doing a very good oil of men wheeling wheelbarrows—good action and form—a surprise to me.” Typically, Smith ended with a generous remark: “After all a decent serious fellow.”
In January 1938, Smith wrote, “Again I couldn’t find a thing of merit in his late work. I believe he is color blind. He has a canvas loaded a la Van Gogh with cad. [cadmium] yellow and a thin blue sky. It is mad but has no interest in design, form, emotion and the color is the worst I’ve ever seen. He’s sent away his wife l hear. I believe he’s really demented.” But later Smith recanted, “I … find that his wife has gone away for medical treatment and the gossip is not true.”
Smith seemed pleased to encounter George Yater in late 1936: “A very good young painter and craftsman. Feel he will continue in a traditional way to improve his work with a little digression into experimentation. Paints with emotion … He has just had a show of watercolors at Babcock [Galleries] N.Y. (no sales) good review… 1/15/37.” In November 1937: “Doing a nice oil of old ice house.”
Art In The Schools
Vernon Smith was also responsible for placing art in Cape public schools and other public buildings such as police stations—not always an easy assignment. Smith recorded that the principal of Wellfleet’s “two old dingy schools . . . made a selection of several pictures, but when informed of the new rules about paying the cost of paint and canvas decided couldn’t do it. The selection was not a good one anyway.”
In the town of Orleans, where Smith lived, “The town fathers were almost forced against their better discretion to request some watercolors of the town done by Vernon Smith from the WPA. Now they have them they seem embarrassed to know what to do with them. They are in the town vault 10/1/36.”
A couple of weeks later, the pictures were taken from the vault and hung in the grade school and high school. The now-pleased town fathers asked for more of Smith’s work and were “willing to spend $40 for framed pictures” to be selected by Smith himself.
Smith’s main problem lay in a general reluctance to accept modern work. He was pleased by the attitude of the Falmouth superintendent of schools, who was “interested in art and not antagonistic towards moderns.” Smith thought of him as “the best bet on the Cape for more modern work, like (Dorothy) Loeb, [and Karl] Knaths. 1/15/37.” The school had two murals by Knaths.
In the late 1930s, many new schools were being built on the Cape, providing walls for murals. One such school was Harwich High School, where Smith noted that Fritz Fuglister was “certainly the man for this … after [his] excellent job at Falmouth police station.”
Opposed to this was the Harwich High School building committee, which Smith noted, “want a mural but don’t want a modern job—nor the social struggle—nor vegetables—something more related to Harwich history say (a) Early agriculture (b) windmills era (c) Fishing (d) Whaling (e) cranberry business (f) summer tourists.”
Another hurdle was posed by a Miss Jones, the supervisor at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis: Smith describes her as “a typically efficient nurse who knows what she likes in pictures. Drawings of children and V. Coleman’s ships are her idea of art … The hospital is supplied with many watercolors and oils by Dr. Gray, chief of staff—Pretty Bad.”
The WPA program was said to be an impetus behind the Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1940s and ’50s by creating a sense of purpose and camaraderie. While it is difficult to assess the impact of the WPA on the local art scene, we can believe that it gave a sense of worth, professionalism and encouragement in addition to the welcome stipends. At an economically difficult time, the creative continuity of art in Provincetown was ensured, thanks to governmental involvement.
The author is indebted to “The Avantgarde in Boston: The Experiment of the WPA Federal Art Project,” by Edith A. Tonelli, Archives of American Art Journal, nos. 1-4, 1990, Jim Zimmerman, and to Sara Smith Joy for access to Vernon Smith’s WPA material. Photography by Jim Zimmerman.
Tony Vevers lives in Provincetown where he exhibits at Long Point Gallery and curates exhibits for the Provincetown Art Association and Museum.
Copyright © 1997 by Tony Vevers. Adapted from Vernon Smith, catalog published by Provincetown Art Association and Museum.