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Book focuses on New Deal art in Arizona

February 03, 2010

When she was a faculty member at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Penn., art historian Betsy Fahlman studied the work of artist Charles Demuth, who spent his life in Lancaster and painted watercolors and oils.

At Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., where she taught for eight years, Fahlman worked on several Virginia-based projects, including an architectural history of Norfolk and a catalogue on Alexander Galt, a neoclassical sculptor in mid-19th century Norfolk.

So, when Fahlman accepted a position at ASU in 1988, she, of course, began searching for a local artist or genre to research. “I’m a regionalist,” she said. “Wherever I’ve been, I’ve always worked on a project.”

Fahlman, now a professor of art history in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, began her quest for a suitable Arizona subject by looking around to see what had already been written, and what remained of New Deal art in the state.

“When I cast about for a regional project, I encountered Lew Davis, a wonderful artist born in Jerome, who came back here during the Depression, and painted scenes of mining. But Carolyn Robbins, education curator at the Scottsdale Center, had just done her M.A. thesis on him, and a wonderful exhibition and catalogue. So, he was taken.”

Next, she looked at downtown Phoenix, and again came up short. She explained, “As an architectural historian, I tend to be a high style person, and there were just not enough historic buildings remaining downtown to sustain the kind of project that would have occupied me for some years, as it did in Virginia.

“There are some wonderful older buildings downtown, such as the Maricopa County Courthouse and the Rosson House, but not large numbers of buildings by a single architect as there are in some cities.

“But I kept encountering images of Farm Security Administration photography of Arizona, and realized that there was a project of real scope that I could dig into.”

But as she mined the history of Arizona in the 1930s, she discovered that a rich treasure trove of art had sprung from the New Deal’s “alphabet agencies,” and she changed her focus to include paintings, murals and sculpture, as well as photography.
She tells the story of that treasure trove in her newest book, “New Deal Art in Arizona,” published late last year by the University of Arizona Press.

One of Fahlman’s first surprises in her research was the fact that ASU’s Tempe campus is home to several New Deal works of art. And one of them, coincidentally, was chosen as the book’s dust-jacket illustration, unbeknownst to her.

A photo of “Industrial Development in Arizona,” a large painting on canvas done in 1934 by Joseph Morgan Henninger, covers both front and back of the book. The mural now hangs in Old Main, along with its counterpart, “Spanish Influence in Arizona,” also by Henninger.

A third ASU New Deal artwork, Emry Kopta’s “Kachina Fountain,” is represented by a rendering of the fountain as Kopta envisioned it. The fountain, which now sits in front of Old Main, was built without the Hopi flute player that was supposed to sit atop it, since funding ran about before the sculpture could be cast. (In 2002, ASU decided to cast Hopi Flute Player and install it in the Music Building courtyard, in accordance with the wishes of the Hopi Tribe.)

And, Fahlman includes photos of three “lost” WPA murals by Sim Bruce Richards and John Porter Leeper that were installed in the Moeur Building on the Tempe campus when it was the Women’s Activity Building. (Richards’ murals were painted on the walls and have long since been painted over, and Leeper’s mural, which was painted on canvas, has disappeared.)

Though she does not cover archaeological, writing or musical New Deal projects in Arizona in depth, except for “Arizona: A State Guide” published by the Federal Writers’ Project, Fahlman notes that there were many such efforts in Arizona during the 1930s, and that ”the government emerged as a significant cultural patron.”

One of the biggest New Deal projects, both in Arizona and in the United States, Fahlman said, was the series of post-office murals commissioned by the Farm Security Administration/Office of War (FSA/OWI).

The mural artists were chosen in blind competitions, which “prevented selection committees from deliberately choosing artists who lived in the states where the murals were to be installed,” Fahlman said.

“Executed in every state, they celebrated local and regional history, or historical events related to communication and mail delivery. Budgets did not permit onsite research, and therefore, artists depended on secondary sources or information, which necessarily meant they dealt with broad themes and archetypes.”

This liability generally did not prove to be problematic, Fahlman said, but citizens of Safford, Arizona, were not happy about the theme chosen by the artist for its post office.

The winning artist, Seymour Fogel, who had studied at the Art Students League in New York and had been an assistant to Diego Rivera in New York in the mid-’30s, proposed a mural that would portray Indian dancers set against a backdrop of colorful desert mesas.

But the members of this Mormon ranching community, whose families had tangled with Indians, reacted, Fahlman said, with “intense hostility.”

“History remained a highly personal issue for them, and local memories of the Apache raids that killed early family members and friends remained sharp. Native Americans remained enemies, not the colorful performers at picturesque New Mexico pueblos favored by tourists on Indian Detours.”

The Safford citizens told Fogel, in other words, “We know our history, you don’t.”

Fogel revised his artwork to include six panels, collectively named “The History of the Gila Valley,” with subtitles such as “”New Lands,” “Early Pioneers,” and “Migration.”

Ironically, Fahlman said, Fogel, who chose to paint his murals directly on the wall, rather than on canvases that he could have completed in New York and simply shipped to Safford, “professed to like Safford,” when all was said and done.

He reportedly commented, “The Southwest is a grand place. I’ve been to my first small town dance, and feel sort of bowlegged right now as I rode my first steed today. I’m afraid I’ll be coming back with a drawl and a Stetson.”

Fahlman, who has published six books in the past seven years, is already working on her next one – a history of Kraushaar Galleries, a New York City gallery founded in 1885 and one of only four galleries remaining in Manhattan from the 19th Century.

And, being the regionalist that she is, she also has in the back of her mind a book about Arizona women artists in Arizona between 1900 and 1950, such as Kate Cory, Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton, Lillian Wilhelm Smith, Jessie Benton Evans and Mary Jane Colter. “The early artists community in Arizona was mostly women,” Fahlman said.

The women, however, will have to wait until Fahlman is finished with the gallery, she said. “After having two books appear last year, I am thinking one book at a time.”