For all of the Federal Art Project’s visible output, much of its work remained unseen. One such effort was a huge and valuable undertaking that aimed to preserve a record of America’s disappearing past. Project researchers, artists, and photographers were at work unearthing art and artifacts in order to compile an exact pictorial record of the stuff Americans had lived, worked, and played with from the eighteenth century on.
The path to this vast project began with Romana Javitz’s problem. Javitz was the curator of the New York Public Library’s picture collection. In the 1920s, she had visited libraries and museums in Europe and been struck by the attention they paid to keeping native arts and crafts alive through pictures. Records of folk arts such as these—depictions of the houses in which people lived, their furnishings, their kitchen and work tools, what they wore, their children’s clothes and toys—had never been systematically collected in America. When Javitz joined the library some years later and began to take requests from artists and decorators for research that would let them duplicate these old materials, all she had to show them were scattered pictures—and those few were fragile and crumbling from heavy use.
One of these artists was Ruth Reeves, a painter and textile designer. Together, she and Javitz promoted the idea that the WPA could put commercial artists to work locating examples of American design and recording them in accurate detail. They foresaw the result as an invaluable research tool.
Holger Cahill liked the idea. Its concept fit with his appreciation of grassroots art. He could see that it was a massive task and he doubted that it would ever be finished, given that the arts projects, like the rest of the WPA, were funded from year to year, but he approved it nonetheless. Not all the artists assigned to the index—ultimately there would be 500 in all, including photographers—welcomed their assignment. They were artists, after all, not copyists. But it did not take them long to appreciate the quality that Cahill was demanding. He likened it to the vividly realistic paintings of the nineteenth-century American trompe l’oeil master William Harnett, who rendered objects so faithfully that they almost begged to be lifted from the canvas and used. Index artists were trained in a distinctive technique of watercolor painting developed by Egyptologist Joseph Lindon Smith in the early twentieth century to record archaeological objects he was unable to bring home. “It required exact precision, and our copy was a little better than a photograph,” said one of the artists, Joseph Delaney.
First, of course, the objects themselves had to be found. Frances Pollack, director of educational projects for the WPA in New York, worked with Javitz and Reeves, directing the research as well as administering the growing collection of picture plates. Field researchers and artists fanned out to thirty-five states, finding and recording in minute detail costumes, dolls, ballet slippers, pottery and glass, furniture, Southwestern Indian and Pennsylvania German folk art, andirons, door knockers, tin boxes, and other metalwork. They photographed and painted Shaker crafts and clothing, quilts and weavings, weather vanes, toys, and wood carvings that ranged from shop signs to the figureheads of sailing ships. The index survived through one funding cycle after another and the picture plates piled up, building to a total of 22,000 images. What began as Romana Javitz’s problem became the Index of American Design, one of the Federal Art Project’s most enduring works.
While the design index researchers and artists were making a permanent record that would inform future artists and designers, fully a quarter of Art Project workers were extending the reach of art still further. Cahill had envisioned the project not just as an artists’ employment service but as a way to take art to people who lived in areas where painting and sculpture were hardly ever seen. This idea had struck him prior to joining the project, when he accompanied a father and son to a performance by a group of southern gospel harmony singers in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Afterward, the conversation turned to art, and the son, who was painting ads for movies showing at the local theater, told Cahill he wished he could learn more. “But I can’t,” he said. “There are no pictures here that can help me in any way.” Later, when Jacob Baker was screening Cahill for the Art Project job and the two were still on cordial terms, he recounted the story. “I would like to put up centers where you could help people like that,” Cahill told Baker.
As the story circulated among Cahill’s staff, the movie ad painter became a barefoot hillbilly walking for miles across rugged mountains to look at an oil painting because he’d never seen one. But Cahill’s vision was more practical than sentimental, and he pushed on with the plan to place art centers in communities that had little access to art and art education. These centers would not only display artworks but also offer classes in drawing and painting for aspiring artists and classes in art appreciation for people who simply wanted to know what to look for in a painting or a piece of sculpture.
By the fall of 1935, North Carolina state director Daniel Defenbacher had opened the first of the Federal Art Project’s community centers in Winston-Salem. There were two more in North Carolina by the end of the year. A year later, the Art Project had opened a total of twenty-five centers across the South and West, and the response to them fully justified Cahill’s initiative. Parents were enrolling their children in classes for a level of knowledge about art history and techniques that the impoverished public schools could not provide, and they themselves were attending evening classes and public lectures. By the end of 1936, more than 1 million people had participated in free programs at these WPA art centers.
The community centers were slower to arrive in major cities, but when they did they were especially welcome. A hunger for art classes was first filled in New York City’s Harlem by WPA muralist Charles Alston, who turned an old stable on 141st Street into a teaching studio that became an arts salon. The WPA later funded the Harlem Art Workshop at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library, and in 1937 it established the Harlem Community Art Center in a loft at 125th Street and Lenox Avenue. Among the many artists to gather and receive instruction at these centers were the collagist Romare Bearden and the young Jacob Lawrence, who later worked for the WPA easel division and would become famous for his series of works depicting the black migration to the North. In Chicago, the WPA’s South Side arts center would not open until 1940, but would produce alumni that included photographer Gordon Parks and artist and poet Margaret Burroughs.