COLORADO WOMEN ARTISTS OF THE NEW DEAL
Linda Anne Sivertson
B.A.A., University of Minnesota, Duluth, 1982
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Humanities
by Linda Anne Sivertson
All rights reserved.
This thesis for the Master of Humanities
Linda Anne Sivertson
has been approved
Pamela W. Laird
Sivertson, Linda Anne (M.H., Master of Humanities)
Colorado Women Artists of the New Deal
Thesis directed by Professor Pamela W. Laird
Five Colorado women artists, Gladys Caldwell Fisher, Louise Emerson
Ronnebeck, Ethel and Jenne Magafan, and Laura Gilpin, were women artists
who created art for the government during the Great Depression of the
1930s. Their artistic careers were impacted by the New Deal programs. It
was through this unprecedented funding of the arts and its programs that
these women saw their artistic careers open for them locally and nationally.
To frame the historical context of art in the Great Depression, the
groundwork of arts funding in this era is discussed. This includes a
description of Roosevelts New Deal with respect to arts funding both its
pluses and minuses and some of the controversies that arose from
government funding of the arts, including the place that New Deal funding
held in Colorado, specifically regarding the work of the five women artists
who are the focus of this study. Also included is a brief but crucial
examination of the dialogue concerning women's roles in the economic and
political systems of the 1930s.
The lives of Gladys Caldwell Fisher, Louise Emerson Ronnebeck, Laura
Gilpin, and Jenne and Ethel Magafan, tell a tale of survival, hardship, and
personal growth. Like many others who participated in the arts programs,
they benefited from the strategic arrangement of programs and funding
funneled through the New Deal. Under consideration is how this funding of
the arts affected their lives and their art. Exploration of the artists lives
includes the impact programs had on the marketability of their art, what
influenced the images they produced for the government, the conditions
under which the work was produced, and where the work was displayed.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I
recommend its publication.
Pamela W. Laird
I dedicate this thesis to my husband Dan, and sons Adam and Luke, who
believed that all things were possible. Their encouragement in the dark hours of
creation was a light at the end of the tunnel. Thanks.
Any project of this magnitude is never completed alone. I wish to thank
the following people who contributed to and supported my research. First I would
like to thank the members of my committee: Dr. Pamela Laird, Dr. Margaret
Woodhull, and Dr. James Whiteside. Their suggestions and direction were highly
Thanks need to go the wonderful staff at the Denver Public Library-
Western History Collection for their encouragement, suggestions, and help
locating materials for my research.
Thank you to my supervisors Eriks Humeyumptewa and Janet Lebar.
They supported my pursuit from the start. I appreciated all the times they worked
with me adjusting work schedules to accommodate classes. Most of all, I greatly
appreciated their understanding when I needed to take vacation days to meet
I would also like to thank Lee Pruett, Katherine Rousseau, Adam
Sivertson, Dan Sivertson, Randal Sivertson and Wendy Tuma who helped with
the laborious task of proofreading my text. If there are still mistakes they are all
TABLE OF CONTENTS
2. MAKING OF THE NEW DEAL..........................10
Hope for the People.........................10
Women and their Role in the New Deal........15
3. RELIEF FOR THE ARTS.............................23
4. WOMEN ARTISTS OF THE WEST.......................38
5. OPPORTUNITY FOR WESTERN WOMEN ARTISTS...........48
6. LOUISE EMERSON RONNEBECK........................56
7. GLADYS CALDWELL FISHER..........................65
8. ETHEL AND JENNE MAGAFAN.........................73
9. LAURA GILPIN....................................81
A. TERMS AND ACRONYMS.........................91
B. COMPOSITE MAP OF NEW DEAL REGIONS..........92
C. ARTWORK PRODUCED UNDER THE WPA/FAP.........93
D. ARTWORK PRODUCED BY FIVE COLORADO WOMEN
E. 1930 CENSUS INFORMATION....................95
F. ATTEMPTS TO CREATE PERMANENT ART FUNDING...96
LIST OF FIGURES
6.1 MOUNTAIN PICNIC IN CHAPTER 6...................63
6.2 HARVEST IN CHAPTER 6...........................64
7.1 ROCKY MOUNTAIN BIG HORN SHEEP IN CHAPTER 7.....70
7.2 HIMALAYAN COLLAR BEAR IN CHAPTER 7.............71
8.1 LAWRENCE MASSACRE IN CHAPTER 8.................78
8.2 COTTON PICKERS IN CHAPTER 8....................79
8.3 COWBOY DANCE IN CHAPTER 8......................80
9.1 NAVAJO MADDONA IN CHAPTER 9....................86
9.2 BRYCE CANYON IN CHAPTER 9......................87
CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION
Five Colorado women artists, Gladys Caldwell Fisher, Louise Emerson
Ronnebeck, Ethel and Jenne Magafan, and Laura Gilpin, were women artists who
were paid to create art for the government during the 1930s. They saw their careers
impacted by the New Deals funding of the arts. These five women artists of the West
represent cross sections of Colorados artistic output and demonstrate the impact
government funding had on the lives and careers of western women artists. At the
outbreak of the Depression, each of these artists had a fledgling to moderately
established art career; with this funding all were able to support themselves and, in
some cases, their families while continuing art careers through the 1930s by obtaining
one or more of the government-sponsored commissions; they pursued nationally
recognized art careers for the remainder of their lives; and, finally, all have
documentation defining their lives and work that extends through the Depression
years and beyond.1
The lives of these five women artists of the West tell a tale of surv ival,
hardship, and personal growth. Like many others who participated in the arts
programs, they benefited from the strategic arrangement of New Deal programs and
funding. Under consideration is how funding of the arts affected their lives and their
1 See Appendix D for a list of commissions each artist executed for the New Deal programs.
art. Exploration of this consideration includes the impact on the marketability of their
art, what influenced the images they produced for the government, under what
conditions the work was produced, and where was the work displayed. Also included
is a brief but crucial examination of the dialogue of womens roles in the economic
and political systems of the 1930s. This will focus on a few prominent women,
particularly Eleanor Roosevelt and Ellen Woodward, who were crucial contributors to
the development of New Deal organizations and the inclusion of women as
beneficiaries of these programs. The subsidiary benefit derived from the role these
women played in the government was the inclusion of women in the cultural
democracy of the New Deal government.
The New Deal programs were a governmental response to the Great
Depression in the United States: through them significant changes were made in the
social and economic fabric of the nation. The impact of the Depression was
pervasive. Some people lost everything; others tightened their belts and effected
endless little economies; and a few made themselves wealthy. Along with the rest
of the countrys populace, the economic crisis and the government programs
instituted for recovery profoundly affected Colorado artists Gladys Caldwell Fisher, 2 3
2 Cultural Democracy in this context is defined as access to culture that could only come through
public ownership of art, and that which is presented through a public institution open to all and
meaningful to all. This integration of democracy and the arts was a social value held during the
Progressive era and gained strength politically through the New Deal cultural projects. Jane De Hart
Mathews, "Arts and the People: The New Deal Quest for a Cultural Democracy," The Journal of
American History 62, no. 2 (September 1975): 316-339.
Eleanor Roosevelt, It's Up to the Women (New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1933), p. ix.
Louise Emerson Ronnebeck, Laura Gilpin, Jenne and Ethel Magafan. Of the many
social, political, and economic changes taking place during the era of the 1930s, the
unprecedented funding of the arts through the programs of the New Deal opened
doors for these women.4 New Deal programs assisted artists across the nation. Arts
programs were housed under the following parent organizations: the Works Projects
Administration (WPA), Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), Treasury Relief Art
Project (TRAP), Federal One and its subsidiary program the Section.5
Instituted under President Franklin D. Roosevelts leadership, New Deal
programs were a bold experiment in economic stimulus and social welfare. The
Works Project Administration and the Federal Arts Projects (WPA/FAP) most
directly focused a portion of funding on initiatives designed to prevent the arts and its
creators from the crippling impact of the economic downturn. The WPA/FAP
provided economic support for writers, historians, artists, thespians, dancers, and
musicians. For the artists in Colorado particularly women artists the federally
funded arts programs of the New Deal provided a financial windfall to the states
fledgling art community sustaining the arts, its schools and museums with funding
which fiscally strapped communities could no longer provide.6
4Bonnie Hardwick, Working List of Artists and Others Associated with Federal Art Project, Denver
Public Library-Western History Collection (Denver: Denver Public Library, 1988).
5 For a reference list of acronyms and terms, see Appendix A.
Catherine Smith-Warren, Time and Place: One Hundred Years of Women Artists in Colorado 1900-
2000 (Denver, Colorado: Exhibition Catalog, 2000), p. 30.
Using government monies to support the arts during an economic crisis -
when many people did not have food produced both art funding critics and
proponents. Eventually the dawn of World War II saw the embattled WPA/FAP
experience a slow, drawn-out demise. This demise came despite repeated campaigns
throughout the 1930s and early 1940s to create a national arts arm of the federal
government. Once this governmental support of the arts disappeared, it was not
revived again on a national scale until 1965 with the Johnson administrations
creation of the National Endowment for the Arts.7
The New Deal not only redefined art in America but also the nations social
and economic climate through these groundbreaking programs. The expansive scope
of the New Deal initiatives is beyond the breadth of this research; therefore, the focus
will be on the unprecedented funding for the arts and its subsequent impact on five
female artists. These Colorado women were poised to fulfill the commissions
provided through and for the government in the Western region of the country.8
This study will start by framing the historical context of art in the Great
Depression. This includes a description of Roosevelts New Deal with respect to arts
funding both its pluses and minuses and some of the controversies that arose from
7 National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), National Endowment for the Arts, 2002, www.nea.gov/
(accessed May 15, 2008). President Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and the
Humanities Act on September 29, 1965 which established the NEA.
Bonnie Hardwick, Working List of Artists and Others Associated with Federal Art Project, Denver
Public Library-Western History Collection (Denver: Denver Public Library, 1988). As many as
twenty-seven women artists were recorded as receiving commisions from New Deal programs in
Region 11 (see Appendix B for a map of funding regions).
government funding of the arts as well as the place that New Deal funding held in
Colorado, specifically with an eye towards contextualizing the work of the women
artists who are the focus of this study. This context will provide a framework for
understanding the subsequent chapters on the five women artists: Gladys Caldwell
Fisher, Louise Emerson Ronnebeck, Laura Gilpin, Jenne and Ethel Magafan.
The text will also explore funding allocations for the arts and how those
allocations emerged in a period of time when, by some estimates, as many as four
million Americans were unemployed.9 This boondoggle, as it was referred to in the
New York Times in 1935, deployed money and artisans across a starving land to
document the devastation of a nation and to create beauty in the midst of ashes.10 The
concept of putting artists to work while funding their artistic endeavors on a national
scale was bom, in part, from the rise of a provision of workers wages for
professionally and technically trained people. This provision of coupling workers
wages with Roosevelts conceptualization of an egalitarian society, a cultural
democracy to be outfitted with new technology and conveniences, provided
unprecedented work opportunities for women in America. The outcome was
9 U.S. Government, Final Report on the WPA Program 1935-43 (Washington, D.C.: U.S.
10 The word was used in the testimony of Robert Marshall, a WPA crafts instructor. His testimony was
given to the 1935 New York City Aldermans investigation into the use of WPA project funds. The
New York Times headline included the word Boon Doggie. Once used in the New York Times on
April 4, 1935, the original meaning of the word as a craft project, was subsequently altered to indicate
a wasteful, politically motivated, pursuit or project. Merriam-Webster, The Merriam-Webster New
Book of Word Histories (New York, New York: Merriam-Webster Inc., 1991), p. 58-59.
expanded opportunities and new frontiers for women in American politics, society,
and subsequently, the arts.
Funding an egalitarian society by the government lead to the use and control
of artistic images. Imagery, as well as the artists personal ideologies, created
controversy, specifically over what artwork and images should be sanctioned by and
through the government. Imagery conflicts affected not only infamous rebels like
Diego Rivera and his government-funded image of Communist leader Lenin, but also
the artwork produced by Jenne Magafan and Louise Ronnebeck.11 Artists referred to
the government-approved images and styles as painting Section.12 Art historians
eventually designated this approved style with the terms American scene,
regionalism, and social realism.13 Under the highly specific direction of regional
and federal program directors, designated imagery and censure directly affected the
commissioned work these women produced for government projects. An outgrowth
of these dictates imposed on the nations artists was the development of a national
artistic style. The national artistic styles American scene and American genesis
combined an array of visual elements such as: social realism, pictorial dynamism,
regionalism, and a modified cubistic figurative stylization. These approved elements
" Diego Riviera (1886 1957) a Mexican muralist involved in a Revolutionary artists commune,
often tied to Communism, his images portrayed the triumph of labor and the destruction of the evils of
capitalism, poverty, and the established Church. He was married to the feminist artist Frieda Kahlo.
He was also known for apprenticing Jackson Pollock. Magafans and Ronnebecks conflicts over
images will be discussed in subsequent chapters.
12 For a definition of Section refer to Appendix A.
13 Karal Ann Marling, Wall to Wall America (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press,
also came with specified themes. American scene elements and themes influenced
much of American, specifically western, art in ensuing eras.14
Denver, as an art center and central Front Range location, comes to the
forefront in the overview of Colorados position in the New Deal. The geographic
location of Denver as the second largest city in the Western United States during the
1930s placed Colorado in a strong position to receive New Deal funds and
commissions. As a growing city it received funding for public works projects such
as civic and cultural buildings, national parks, and dams. The Front Range also
received funding for cultural programs. With the country divided into sixteen regions
for funding and project distribution, Denver secured itself a strategic position as the
outpost for the directorship of Region Eleven.15 The Region Eleven offices located in
the Queen City of Denver came about as a natural outgrowth of the position the city
held in the West as a growing cultural center. Denver, along with the Front Range
cities of Colorado Springs and Central City, boasted a number of art schools,
museums, theatres, opera houses, and fine arts centers. Coupled with a committed
group of philanthropists such as George and Jean (Chappell) Cranmer, Anne Evans,
and Helen Perry. The arts community maintained a viable if financially struggling
existence in the area throughout the 1930s. Public and civic leaders worked as
philanthropists. They promoted the arts, funded scholarships, paid artists salaries,
14 Federal Art In Colorado 1934-1943: An Exhibition Rediscovering an Era, Oct 27-Jan 31, 1979.
Manuscript. Denver Public Library (C MSS OH2)
15 See map in Appendix B.
and donated property for museums and studios. Also, these men and women
philanthropists supported artists with commissions and networked for them
throughout the country, particularly in Washington D.C., promoting the artists and
projects of the West. Without the help of these individuals and others, the many
artists including these five of women artists of Colorado would not have been able
to continue their creative endeavors through the decade of want.
As an outgrowth of the strategic placement of the Region Eleven headquarters
in Denver in the 1930s, significant commissions for the WPA/FAP and PWAP were
completed in the city and surrounding area, with women artists creating a varied and
vast assortment of these images. Some of the work produced by women artists in the
region included the replication of sacred Santos, recording artifacts for the Index of
American Design, construction of scale replicas of Native American cliff dwellings
and other dioramas for the Natural History Museum.16 Women also created large-
scale murals for regional post offices, and sculpted the two-ton stone big horn sheep
for the newly constructed Denver Post Office.17 The federally sponsored art
programs were responsible, in part, for the artistic development and the survival of a
number of Colorado artists who went on to become important figures in their creative
fields following the Depression.
16 a. Santos are religious reliquaries created by the people of the southwest for worship in churches
throughout the region, b. The Index of American Design, or IAD, is a pictorial record of American
designs for articles in common use since the Colonial period to the 1930s. The record in its final form
consisted of approximately 15,000 color plates with data sheets.
17 This building is located on 20th Street in Denver and now houses the Federal Judicial Courthouse.
Through funding, work relief, arts projects combined with the intangibles of
recognition, a market, and viewership for their work the Great Depression and New
Deal functioned as a catalyst that brought significant changes to the lives of Colorado
women artists. The New deal shored up the careers of five Colorado women artists
working in during the Great Depression, Louise Emerson Ronnebeck, Gladys
Caldwell Fisher, Laura Gilpin, Ethel and Jenne Magafan.
CHAPTER 2: THE MAKING OF THE NEW DEAL
Hope for the People
The only ray of light and hope for the millions of unemployed destitute,
hungry and homeless men, women, and children looking for relief in the 1930s was a
change in the government. In the summer of 1932, the governor of New York, a man
with an established record of social concern and political activism, was nominated by
the Democratic Party to run for the presidency.18 That man, Franklin D. Roosevelt,
was duly elected to the presidency that year, a position he continued to hold for the
next twelve years until his death in April of 1945. Despite the Great Depression and
the threats of global war, Roosevelts tenure in the White House laid the foundations
of modem America. More than that of any previous president, his administration
became central to the life of the nation. The administration he constructed and the
new social and welfare programs he instituted permanently altered the federal
government and its relationship to American society. The policies and programs
developed under his leadership are loosely grouped together and commonly referred
to as the New Deal.19
Katie Louchheim, ed., The Making of the New Deal: Insiders Speak (Cambridge, Massachusetts:
Harvard University Press, 1983), p. 1.
19 Alan Brinkley, The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of the American People, Fourth Edition
(New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004). p. 677.
Roosevelt was a man who wanted to tiy, wanted to experiment, wanted to
innovate; and along with the men and women in his administration who wished to be
part of that mission, he constructed the beginnings of the welfare system, extended
areas of federal regulation, and created the Democratic coalition that dominated
American politics for the next 30 years. The New Deal did not, however, end the
Great Depression, but merely stabilized a volatile economy until the defense contracts
of World War II brought renewed national prosperity. Ultimately comprised of a
widely varied array of programs and legislation, the New Deal was initially designed
to alleviate the chaos and public panic the nation experienced during the years of the
Great Depression. An unforeseen outcome of these programs was an unprecedented
funding for the arts across the United States.
During the first one hundred days of his administration, Franklin D. Roosevelt
took sweeping measures to combat the nations economic crisis. The initial steps and
reforms taken by the administration were primarily aimed at the financial systems of
the country and secondarily focused on the rampant national unemployment. The
rampant unemployment was coupled with the nations severely reduced goods
production. The programs put in place by Roosevelts administration were not
necessarily designed to establish long-term changes to the government.
Initially, Roosevelts administration did not consider relief to the unemployed
as the administrations most critical task even though in 1932 thirteen to fourteen *
Rana Williamson, ed., Micropedia, American History (Bath, U.K.: Parragon, 1999). p. 152.
million people were unemployed with virtually no government system in place to
help them. Thus the necessity of helping impoverished Americans became apparent
to the President. Helping the unemployed to survive until the economy could be
stabilized was a crucial step in economic rehabilitation.21 22 23
As part of the economic rehabilitation of the country, the first work relief and
arts programs were administered through the Federal Emergency Relief
Administration (FERA). FERA was directed by professional social worker, Harry L.
Hopkins. Hopkins, who became the Presidents personal confidante and trusted
advisor, was hand-selected by the President for this emerging position. He held the
position of FERA administrator from 1933 to 1935 and served as the director of the
Public Works Administration (PWA), the oversight organization over the WPA, from
1938 to 1940. Hopkins, as a progressive and a firm believer in the concepts of the
social gospel, shaped the initial work relief organization FERA, including the
incorporation of funding for the arts as part of a national recovery program.
Hopkins gift was his ability to galvanize bureaucrats and bureaucracies into
action and guide them by his personal philosophy of government:
To permit idle men with their families to starve, to let our schools close, to
let our city streets become a maze of holes, to see our land waste away and
homes go to rack is not economy. To use the wealth we have to put our idle
21 Elizabeth Wickenden in Katie Louchheim, ed. The Making of the New Deal: Insiders Speak
(Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1983). p. 177.
Alan Brinkley, The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of the American People, Fourth Edition
(New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004). p. 683.
23 Katie Louchheim, eA.The Making of the New Deal: Insiders Speak (Cambridge, Massachusetts:
Harvard University Press, 1983). p. 176.
people to work in the task of internal development of our country and in the
conservation of our natural resources is real economy.24 25 26
Through Hopkins leadership, work relief projects were designed for and
intended to conserve the skills, work habits, and morale of the able-bodied
unemployed through work suited to their abilities, while providing valuable projects
and service for their communities. Professional and technical work relief, not just
heavy labor infrastructure construction work, was incorporated into the federally
funded relief projects.
Ideological principles held by both the President and Harry Hopkins was the
basis on which Hopkins convinced Roosevelt to establish the ensuing array of work
relief administrations and projects. Hopkins, through his direction and
implementation, was considered by many to be the heart and soul of the New Deal
relief projects; ultimately he established a blueprint for future program development.
What started with FERA later transformed into a myriad of programs and
projects. In 1935, FERA was phased out. Work relief became known under its new
name, the Works Progress Administration, after its last restructuring by Congress in
1939. The Works Projects Administration (WPA) would be its final moniker until the
programs demise in 1943. Generally the acronym WPA encompassed the broad
spectrum of organizations that provided relief to employable persons during the
24 Harry Hopkins in Katie Louchheim, ed. The Making of the New Deal: Insiders Speak (Cambridge,
Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1983). p. 176.
25 U.S. Government. Final Report on the WPA Program 1935-43.p 3
26 Marguerite D. Bloxom (ed.) Pickaxe and Pencil. (Washington, D.C., 1982). p. 9.
Depression. The acronym FAP stood for the five branches of the Federal Arts
Projects funded under the WPA.
The success of the New Deal programs was tied to Washingtons young,
willing, and able administrators and their belief in both Hopkins, the President, and
that work for relief was a means of support for the employable person in need. In
the end, the eight-year legacy of the WPA changed the face of the nation. Its workers
built 651,087 miles of highway, worked on 124,087 bridges, and constructed 125,110
public structures, built 8,192 parks and 853 airports. Nationally, WPA funds operated
community centers, carried out numerous surveys of federal, state, and local archives
in historical societies and libraries supplying jobs to technically and professionally
trained workers. Through its various theater, dance, music, and writing projects,
creative and artistically skilled workers were able to continue employment in their
chosen fields. At its conclusion in June of 1943, the WPA had employed more than
8,500,000 people on 1,410,000 projects costing about $11 billion, leaving a
permanent imprint on American life.27 28
27 William F. McDonald, Federal Relief Administration and the Arts. (Columbus: Ohio State University
Press, 1975), p. 4.
Katie Louchheim, ed. The Making of the New Deal: Insiders Speak (Cambridge, Massachusetts:
Harvard University Press, 1983). p. 177.
Women and Their Role in the New Deal
Women were major contributors to the recovery of the nation. Without
women as key contributors to the nations recovery key women like Eleanor
Roosevelt and Ellen Woodward the face of recovery and the opportunities provided
women would have been dramatically different. The needs and aspirations of the
nations women were voiced and their pleas were heard through these spokeswomen
- and other women who held strategic positions in New Deal political arenas.
Without their voice, the women artists of Colorado would not have been provided
with work relief opportunities through the New Deal arts programs.
The climate for professional women in the 1930s was rooted in the social
changes of the 1920s. Many young, single, and increasingly well-educated women
were seeking opportunities outside the sphere of the home. The years of the 1920s
afforded unprecedented professional and educational prospects to woman. Coupled
with this outgrowth of opportunity were women who found their voice, a voice of
influence in politics and government. This New Woman was counted not only
among the women seeking employment outside the home, but in the numbers of
women employed in trained professions. Just as women began to make real strides in
the professional workplace and to experience the beginnings of economic, political,
and social equality the Crash of 1929 occurred. The Depression forced many women
to shift their focus from professions to survival. The professional and political
women of the 1920s became an important force in the creation of New Deal
programs. These women were in positions to enlarge the political dialogue and
economic benefits for other women in the newly created work relief programs. The
societal boundaries these New Women pushed through in the 1920s, were
boundaries the Depression recast. Recast were the societal demarcations of womens
participation in the economy, politics, and the art of the nation. Women in many
areas of the country were forced back into earlier societal structures of separate
spheres. With many states applying the stringent use of head of household laws for
people to receive work relief benefits, some of the social boundaries for women were
hardened. Women like Eleanor Roosevelt, on the other hand, were able to take the
role of women in the public forum to new levels.
Symbolically at least, the New Deal and the WPA/FAP marked a
breakthrough in the role of women in public life. Key women who affected political
- and subsequently social and economic change were Eleanor Roosevelt, Frances
Perkins, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Ellen Woodward. These were a few prominent
women of the nearly one hundred who were appointed or held positions in Franklin
Roosevelts Administration.29 As William Chafe pointed out, Although few of these
women exercised sufficient independent power to be single-handedly responsible for
specific New Deal reforms, it would be very difficult to imagine the more
29 Alan Brinkley, The Unfinished Nation, A Concise History of the American People. 4th ed., Vol 2.
(New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004), p. 697.
humanitarian, reform-minded programs of the New Deal without these women as
prime contributors and supporters.
The President and the First Lady strategically placed women and like-minded
men throughout New Deal programs and government agencies. This allowed women
access to all levels of the government and granted them a substantial part to play in
the New Deal. Women like Hattie Wyatt Caraway (Arkansas) who, in 1932, became
the first woman elected to the Senate, and in 1933 Frances Perkins who became the
first woman to hold a cabinet position. With Perkins appointment, Franklin
Roosevelt set a presidential precedent, assigning the first female member to the
Cabinet. Roosevelt hoped that with her appointment to the Cabinet he would
demonstrate that his administration believed in the womens approach to social
As noted earlier, these key women of Washington attained their political and
economic clout in the Twenties. It was in the 1930s that they were now in positions 30 31 32 33
30 William Chafe, Womens History and Political History: Some Thoughts on Progressivism and the
New Deal. In Visible Women: New Essays on American Activism. Nancy Hewitt, Suzanne Lebsock,
ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.) p. 112.
31 Rana K. Williamson, ed., Micropedia: American History (Bath, UK: Parragon Publishing, 1999), p.
32 Frances Perkins held the position of Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945 until her resignation at
the death of President Roosevelt. She is credited as the leader of much of the social welfare legislation
of the New Deal. Prior to 1933, Roosevelt had decided that he wanted to be the first president to
appoint a woman to the Cabinet. The drama of breaking with precedent appealed to him because he
recognized the major roles women were beginning to play in politics. Susan Ware, Beyond Suffrage:
Women in the New Deal (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1981), p. 46.
33 Social welfare was an area Frances Perkins was well acquainted with from her previous experience
at settlement houses and her graduate research in sociology completed in New Yorks Hells Kitchen.
Susan Ware, Beyond Suffrage: Women in the New Deal (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard
University Press, 1981), p. 151.
to be able to increase female political patronage, and foster women as a special
interest group, all while increasing the numbers of women in key posts in
Two people in particular are important to the inclusion of women as workers
and recipients in the New Deal. Without the influence of Eleanor Roosevelt and
Ellen Woodward, the opportunities for women would have been much different than
the reality of the New Deal.
Eleanor Roosevelt played an important and pivotal role in the promotion of
women and minorities in New Deal relief programs. Although she never held an
official government post, her institutional role as the First Lady had an important
impact on the behavior of the government toward women and minorities. She was
the eyes and ears of the President, bringing him reports of a nation and people in
need. She thought all people had the right to live in decent housing, wear decent
clothes, receive medical care, and the right to obtain a decent education enabling
them to do something useful in life. She assumed these were ordinary rights that the
people of the country had, she discovered in her travels across the nation that these
needs were not available to all the people of the country. With this awareness she
Susan Ware, Beyond Suffrage: Women in the New Deal (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard
University Press, 1981), p. 7.
became a persuasive advocate of the government doing something to help people in
need. Tied to her willingness to use her public position to push for reform was her
ability to inspire loyalty in friends and colleagues. This placed her in a unique
position to affect change like no other woman in the country. With her strategic
position and the visibility of her activities, such as a daily newspaper column My
Day and her weekly press conferences with women journalists in Washington,
Eleanor Roosevelt inspired women everywhere. In 1933, she attempted to show
women how they could pull the country through its economic crisis through her
advice in the book, Its Up to the Women. According to her, women were often
called on to carry heavier burdens when weathering crisis because ...women know
that life must go on and that the needs of life must be met and it is their courage and
determination which, time and again, have pulled us through worse crises than the
It was through her personal recommendations that many women were able to
gain access to the President. Everyone who was head of a big program tried to get
Eleanor Roosevelts help.35 36 37 38 39 To quote Mary Anderson of the Womens Bureau, She
[Eleanor] always knew what we were doing and understood what our problems were.
35 Claude D. Pepper. Katie Louchheim, ed., The Making of the New Deal: Insiders Speak (Cambridge,
Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1983). p. 308.
36 Susan Ware, Beyond Suffrage: Women in the New Deal (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard
University Press, 1981), p. 10.
37 Eleanor Roosevelt, Its Up to the Women. (New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1933).
38 (E. Roosevelt 1933, ix)
39 (Pepper, p. 309)
I felt that working women everywhere could turn to her for help and support, and
through her could get the kind of sympathetic interest from the President that would
be very useful.40 Eleanor Roosevelt inspired women in public life everywhere, but
her impact was the greatest for the women working in the Washington community.41
Ellen Woodward, director of Womens and Professional Projects for the WPA, said
of her: You do such wonderful things for us there seems nothing we can ever do to
show appreciation except to strive harder and harder to measure up to the
responsibilities of the positions that the President and you have given us.42
Of all the political women in Washington, Ellen Woodward was considered
the most influential and sometimes referred to as the most powerful. She began her
career in Mississippi, following the death of her husband. Woodward worked as the
director of the State Board of Public Welfare in her home state where she built a
nationally recognized reputation. Recognizing her abilities, Harry Hopkins brought
her to Washington in 1933 specifically for the purpose of establishing relief programs
for women. The first position she held was in the womens division of the Civil
Works Administration (CWA), and then the womens relief programs of the Federal
40 Susan Ware, Beyond Suffrage: Women in the New Deal (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard
University Press, 1981), p. 10.
41 (Ware 1981, 10)
42 Susan Ware, Beyond Suffrage: Women in the New Deal (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard
University Press, 1981), p. 11.
Emergency Relief Administration (FERA). In 1936 she was designated the Assistant
Administrator of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in charge of the division
of the Womens and Professional Projects.43 This division provided professional
positions, clerical service, and production projects, employing approximately 325,000
needy men and women. The federal arts projects constituted one section of the
division of professional and service projects.44
In these positions, Woodward impacted the lives of many professional
women, including artists. In a statement before the senate subcommittee established
to evaluate the value of the WPA/FAP, Ellen Woodward argued that [n]o people can
become great without a vision to perceive, and a voice to express its deepest
aspirations. The artists of this country fulfill this function. To imagine that art is a
confection for the idle is to misread all of history. Every artist draws his strength
from the hidden creative forces, the profound but mute needs, of his fellow men. ...
Without art a nation stagnates.45
Although not acquainted with the Roosevelts before her tenure in Washington,
Ellen Woodward soon became a personal friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. Woodward,
with input from the First Lady, was the force who worked diligently to define the
position of women in the public relief projects. As the director of the WPA
professional projects, the art projects, by default, fell under her jurisdiction. In this
43 Congress, Senate. Subcommittee of the Committee on Education and Labor, A Bill to Provide for the
Permanent Bureau of Fine Arts, 75th Cong., 3rd sess., 28 February, 1 and 2 March 1938, p. 63.
44 (Senate hearings, p. 63)
45 (Senate hearings, p. 63)
position, she championed women who were single and heads of households. She
sought equitable placement for women in all funded positions and fought
discrimination in job placement. She was known to express her resentment of state
and local administrators who gave preferential placement in the higher-paid
professional positions to men.46
Under her oversight, women were placed in WPA art and other professional
projects through out the Nation. Like the rest of the working populace, the security
wages provided these female artists subsistence living, remuneration for their creative
endeavors, and in many cases a platform for the public to view their creations. These
public works projects, their government funding, and the political men and women
who lead them were an integral component to the development of, and the
opportunities for, female artists in American art. Due to the leadership of women in
Washington, the women artists of Colorado benefited from the programs they created
46 William F. McDonald, Federal Relief Administration and the Arts (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State
University Press, 1969), p. 61.
CHAPTER 3: RELIEF FOR THE ARTS
A little while ago if anybody suggested such a thing as patronizing the arts,
as it were, it would have been considered outlandish, and yet the Government is doing
it to the extent of $27,000,000 a year in the WPA program, commented Senator
Claude Pepper in the March 1, 1938 debate on the creation of a Bureau of Fine Arts
within the federal government. As the chairman of the committee, Senator Pepper
noted that the Procurement Division of the Treasury, and ... the WPA program
which has been developing a good many American artists and has given recognition
and employment to other American artists.47 The WPA, and more directly, the
Federal Arts Projects (FAP), or Federal One, provided the first major government
funding of the arts in American history.48
To the artists of the nation, including those in Colorado, this unprecedented
government funding was not only critical to the development of the arts, but provided
a security wage for .. .the artist [as] a laborer worthy of his hire.49 Funding
provided opportunities for women and minority artists opening access to public art
venues in ways and in numbers never before realized in the United States. Access
47 Congress, Senate. Subcommittee of the Committee on Education and Labor, A Bill to Provide for the
Permanent Bureau of Fine Arts, 75th Cong., 3rd sess., 28 February, 1 and 2 March 1938, p. 37.
48 William F McDonald, Federal Relief Administration and the Arts. (Ohio State University Press,
1969). p. 4.
49 WPA Federal Art Project, Art as a Function of Government: A Survey, Federal Art Project, WPA
(Washington D.C.: U.S. Government, 1937-1938). p. 2.
came through an application and award process wherein marginalized groups had the
appearance, if not actual opportunities, for equal footing in receiving the awards.
Along with access to the marketplace of the country, New Deal art projects
have been recognized as preserving and encouraging the talents of the nations artists.
Surveying the careers of American artists who achieved international fame following
World War II, and the painters of the Abstract Expressionism movement who
survived the 1930s did so with support from the federal government, implying that
their success was borne out of their involvement in New Deal art programs.50
Under the patronage of the government, artists also created valuable artwork for
public enjoyment and worked to institute a wide, newly established public interest in
It was on May 9, 1933 George Biddle, an American muralist and fellow
Harvard classmate, wrote to President Roosevelt with a proposal for the public
patronage of the arts. In his letter he proposed that the muralist be on the federal
payroll, at plumbers wages.51 52 By the early 1930s the key question simply was:
were artists important enough to use the power of the federal government to shield
them from the Depression? Replying to the question, Harry Hopkins responded to
the Presidents query with, Hell! Theyve got to eat just like other people.
Roosevelt responded to Biddles call for government patronage of the arts by
50 Janies M. Dennis, "Government Art: Relief, Propaganda, or Public Beautification?," Reviews in
American History Vol. 2, No. 2 (June 1974): 275-282.
51 Biddles letter to Franklin Roosevelt.
52 Francis V. O'Connor, ed. Art for the Millions (Connecticut, 1973).p. 19.
forwarding the letter to the Treasury Department, the supervisor of the construction
and embellishment of the nations public buildings. Subsequently, Secretary of the
Treasury Henry Morgenthau formally authorized the creation of the Section of Fine
Art on October 14, 1934, and appointed Edward Bruce its overseer.53 More
commonly known as The Section, or just Section. It was under Edward Bruces
leadership that the process began of putting visual artists to work decorating public
buildings across the Nation.54 This program directly impacted the artists of Colorado
who were called upon to decorate the state and federal buildings under construction in
Denver, and across the West, particularly artists Gladys Caldwell Fisher, the
Magafans, and Louise Ronnebeck.
Edward Bruces selection as the director for the Section was made for a
number of reasons, but as a semi-professional painter in his own right and a
politically savvy public servant, he was able to provide the organizational structure
and control of the art images the President sought. Roosevelt did make it very clear
to Hopkins and Bruce he did not want a plan fostering art that promoted leftist
ideology; he did not relish the prospect of a lot of young enthusiasts painting Lenins
head on the Justice Building.55 Eventually when the programs became embattled
Bruce, understanding the support he would gamer, submitted a letter to Eleanor
53 Karal Ann Marling, Wall to Wall America (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press,
1982). p. 48.
54 Jane De Hart Mathews, "Arts and the People: The New Deal Quest for a Cultural Democracy," The
Journal of American History 62, no. 2 (September 1975). p. 318.
55 Karal Ann Marling, Wall to Wall America (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press,
1982). p. 44.
Roosevelt appealing for her continued support of the art projects. In it he stated, No
great artistic or spiritual movement has ever developed without a patron, maintaining
that under current conditions, the government alone had the power to set artists to
work.56 Bruces counterpart and Hopkins Assistant Director in FERA, Jacob Baker,
also stated in the FERA papers that, ...for the first time in our history, our
government has become a patron of the arts, officially and quite unashamedly.57
Reflecting the faith and belief in the American dream of a more abundant life
with the promise not only of economic and social justice, but also with the inclusion
of cultural enrichment were the President and First Lady, considering it a sound
general principle to maintain the arts as a vital, functioning part of any cultural or
social recovery scheme.58 Cultural democracy encompassed the ideas and
aspirations of the New Deal, not only to provide food for the body, but food to enrich
the spirit.59 The aspiration of the President, implemented through New Deal funding
and programs, sought to integrate the artist into mainstream American life, to make
the arts expressive of the spirit of the nation, and accessible to its people.60
Roosevelt held the conviction people were entitled to cultural enrichment, as
well as economic stability and social justice. To him arts were part of the good life, so
56 (Marling, p. 42)
57 William F. McDonald, Federal Relief Administration and the Arts (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State
University Press, 1969). p.100.
58 (Marling, p. 44)
59 Jane De Hart Mathews, "Arts and the People: The New Deal Quest for a Cultural Democracy," The
Journal of American History 62, no. 2 (September 1975). p. 316.
60 (De Hart Mathews, p. 316)
access to them seemed as logical to him as access to education or the right to vote.61
He personally estimated that only one out of every ten Americans ever had the
opportunity to see a fine picture.62 Hopkins shared a similar view of the arts, while
also holding the belief that the arts functioned as instruments of reform.63
Hopkins and the President did not see the arts projects as simple relief
measures, but recovery measures; recovery not only for the arts but an integral part of
economic revitalization. Their intent was to uplift the Nation through the power of
the arts, create a nation of cultural consumers, provide accessibility to the arts, and
promote the arts as a community asset.64 John Taylor Arms in the forward of Art as
Function of Government wrote, The demand for beauty must come, but it must come
from within-that is, from the people-and they cannot make it until they become
familiar, in their daily lives, with beauty, what it means, and what may be derived
Ultimately, Biddles letter established the Treasury Department as the
custodian of the nations walls under the Public Works of Art Projects (PWAP) and
the Treasury Relief Arts Projects (TRAP) funded through the Civil Works
Administration (CWA). The task given to Bruce and his operational deputy, Edward
61 (De Hart Mathews, p. 319)
62 Francis Perkins. The Roosevelt I Knew, (New York: 1946). p. 73-77.
63 Richard D. McKinzie, The New Deal for Artists (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973). p.
64 (De Hart Mathews, p. 319)
65 WPA Federal Art Project, Art as a Function of Government: A Survey, Federal Art Project, WPA
(Washington D.C.: U.S. Government, 1937-1938). p. 1-2.
Rowen, was to secure for federal buildings across the Nation, the best art this country
could produce, and to select the best artists to execute it. Similarly, Biddles letter
became the catalyst for the establishment of the four Federal Arts Projects or Federal
One (WPA/FAP) placed under the leadership of Hopkins and funded through WPA
With a slightly different focus, the four Federal Arts Programs encompassed
the four branches of the arts: theatre, writing, fine art, and music. Hopkins appointed
and oversaw the four directors of these national programs: Henry Alsberg, Director of
the Federal Writers Project (FWP); Nikolai Sokoloff, Director of the Federal Music
Project (FMP); Hallie Flanagan, Director of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP); and
Holger Cahill, Director of the Federal Arts Project (FAP). Hallie Flanagan and Holger
Cahill worked diligently to make their programs truly Art for the Millions.
Eventually, Federal One became part of the WPA Division of the Womens and
Professional Projects under the direction of Ellen Woodward.
Through the vision and implementation of cultural democracy, the WPA/FAP
and the Section provided more for the artists and the people of the country than just
the implementation of the first major government funding of the arts in American
66 William F. McDonald, Federal Relief Administration and the Arts (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State
University Press, 1969). p. 61
67 The title of Francis OConnors publication on the WPA projects. Originally written by Holger
Cahill, OConnor located the original document, and edited it for publication. Francis V. O'Connor, ed.
Art for the Millions (Connecticut, 1973).
history.68 Unemployed artists began to work again, and the cultural resources of the
nation became accessible in many cases for the first time to people across a
These programs designed under the guidance of Hopkins were intended to
conserve the skills, work habits, and morale of the able-bodied unemployed through
work suited to their abilities and to provide projects and service of value for their
communities.69 Professional and technical work relief, not just heavy labor
infrastructure construction work, was incorporated into the federally funded relief
projects. As Corrington Gill, Assistant Administrator for the Federal Emergency
Relief Administration, wrote in the New York Times in 1935, .. .the program for
white-collar workers undertaken by the State and local relief agencies with the
guidance of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration indicates methods and the
types of work through which this group may be aided... More than 750,000
experienced white-collar workers are on relief in this country. In general, this group
includes all professional persons...70 He went on to express, ...there should be no
division of opinion on the necessity of providing work projects for these people. We
can no more afford to lose their trained abilities by allowing them to deteriorate than
we can afford to line them up against the wall and shoot them or allow them to
68 William F. McDonald, Federal Relief Administration and the Arts (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State
University Press, 1969). p. 4.
69 U.S. Government. Final Report on the fVPA Program 1935-43. p. 3
70 Corrington Gill, White-Collar Work in Relief Defended. The New York Times, (New York City)
14 April, 1935.
starve.71 Gill went on to list the persons that were employed under the new
emergency relief funding. The list of professions slated for relief included doctors,
nurses, and teachers, as well as actors, painters, sculptors, dancers and musicians.
Regulations required that the person receiving relief wages, or structured
wages that provided subsistence living expenses, needed to establish that only one
member of a household could receive a work relief position and security wages.72
This regulation was a social construct instituted in response to prevalent attitudes
toward women in the workplace. Some states further hampered women from
receiving relief by defining the head of household as male, and in other states women
had to demonstrate that they had previous work experience or prove that they were
seeking work outside the home before the economic crisis hit.73
These regulations were designed to assuage public sentiment and concerns
that women seeking work or relief positions would remove the few available jobs
from unemployed men with families. The three most frequently cited reasons for
opposing women working for relief, particularly married ones, was that they took jobs
otherwise able to be filled by men: that the womans place was in the home: and that
children were healthier and home life happier if women did not work.74 This view
71 (Gill, 14 April, 1935)
72 Susan Ware, Holding Their Own: American Women in the 1930s (Boston, Massachusetts: G. K. Hall
& Co., 1982).
73 Lois Scharf and Joan M. Jensen, Decades of Discontent: The Women's Movement, 19201940, Vol.
No. 28 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983). p. 247.
74 Susan Ware, Beyond Suffrage: Women in the New Deal (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard
University Press, 1981). p. 27.
was verified by a 1936 Gallup poll that asked whether wives should work if their
husbands had jobs, and 82 percent of all Americans said no.75 These sentiments did
not take into account the women who had to work to support themselves, or that the
positions often filled and held by women were culturally gendered, and usually
underpaid, even more so by the reduced pay standards of the Depression.76 Also,
these sentiments did not recognize that the Depression put even more pressure on the
existing standard of low pay for women, and as womens wages dropped even though
employed, many women could not meet their basic living costs.77 78 Without the help
and concern of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who convened the 1933 White House
Conference on the Emergency Needs of Women and lobbied her husband for federal
support and Ellen Woodward, the Assistant Director of the WPA and of various
federal womens projects, the plight of our countrys women would have been much
Ellen Woodward was one force that worked diligently to define the position of
women in public relief projects. She sought equitable placement for women in all
funded positions and fought discrimination in job placement. Frustrated with the
barriers to supply enough jobs for professional women, she lobbied Hopkins to place
the WPA professional projects under her control. He eventually gave her the
75 Susan Ware, Beyond Suffrage: Women in the New Deal (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard
University Press, 1981). p. 27
76 (Ware, p. 27)
77 (Ware, p. 27)
78 Lois Scharf and Joan M. Jensen, Decades of Discontent: The Women's Movement, 1920-1940, Vol.
No. 28 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983). p. 246.
responsibility for the oversight of professional positions for women, and signaled the
change by naming the section under her direction the Division of Womens and
Professional Projects, which included the art projects.79 Woodward insisted that
under her directorship, no conscious intention to discriminate based on gender should
exist and that female heads of families and needy single women should receive
consideration for work relief.80 81 82 She was known to express her resentment of the state
and local administrators who gave preferential placement to men for the available and
higher paid relief positions.
Subsequently, due to the nature of professional and technical careers, a large
percentage of professional relief projects and positions were clustered in and around
large city centers. As professional and technical workers, women filled the ranks of
the professional work relief projects. Upwards of 41 percent of the professionals
seeking work relief were women. Within the WPA programs the proportion of
women on the projects varied from 12 to 19 percent, with 400,000 women filling the
ranks of workers in the winter of 1938.83 Wherever possible, attempts were made to
place men and women in project work that was suitable to their educational
background and work experience. Of all the individuals employed in work relief, the
79 Nick Taylor, American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA (New York, NY: Bantam Books,
2008). p. 179.
80 Lois Scharf and Joan M. Jensen, Decades of Discontent: The Women's Movement, 19201940, Vol.
No. 28 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983). p. 247.
81 William F. McDonald. Federal Relief Administration and the Arts. (Ohio, 1975). p. 61.
82 (McDonald, p. 85.)
83 (Scharf and Jensen, p. 247.)
professional projects encompassed only one-twelfth of all men receiving security
wages, but one-third of all women on work relief.84 Even with all their public
visibility, artists, actors, musicians, and dancers only filled approximately three
percent of WPA professional positions.85
In this vein, work relief was considered made work, or work that had there
been no Great Depression would not have been undertaken, or at the very least not
until a much later date in American history.86 At the outset, art relief projects were to
be awarded to destitute persons, and this held true for a vast majority of the projects.
Hopkins and Bruce soon realized they faced a unique challenge in placing workers on
the task of decorating the Nations walls: standards of quality and professionalism.
The men found themselves faced with two choices. Either to create lists of artists who
passed strict professional and quality tests, or to lower all artistic standards and
employ anyone who held any claim to artistry.87 88 Alternatively, the hiring process
required for WPA/FAP established that artists employed could only be hired from the
relief rolls. Since the skills of these artists varied greatly, Holger Cahill and his staff
worked to create opportunities for everyone. In this way he presented an illusion of
inclusion. The Section, as directed by Bruce and Rowen, incorporated strict
84 William F. McDonald, Federal Relief Administration and the Arts (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State
University Press, 1969). p. 86.
85 U.S. Government, Final Report on the WPA Program 1935-43 (Washington, D.C.: U.S.
Government, 1943). p. 3.
86 (McDonald, p. 14)
87 (McDonald, p. 185.)
88 Nick Taylor, American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA (New York, NY: Bantam Books,
2008). p. 270.
guidelines and a rigorous application process vetting the artwork and the artists they
employed. Artists on relief roles were given preference wherever possible. Although
in the case of some of the Treasury Department projects, the reputation of the artist
and the quality of their work superseded their need of monetary or work relief and
they were awarded prized commissions.
Other than the few artists who received awards based upon an established
artistic reputation, seeking relief in the arts required the completion of a rigorous
application process. Although rigorous, the application process had the effect of
providing regional artists with national exposure, as in the case of Ethel Magafans
commission for the mural in the Social Security Building in Washington D.C.89 90
The implementation and award of the projects varied from organization to
organization and reflected the individual views of the directors. Generally the artists
would locate the notification of an open competition or call for art. They would
submit, a sketch in color of something he would like to do, and find out what the
authorities in each case wanted. If the sketch were approved, the process of
completion would begin.91 This included sketches to scale, photographs of the work
in progress, invoicing of materials, hiring assistants; all done under the watchful eye
89 (McDonald, p. 185)
90 Mountains of Snow, 1949.
91 John Ankeney, Regional Director PWAP, Texas. ArtNews, "Official Report on Artists' Relief
Work, April 7, 1934: 10-11, 15-16.
of Washington. Bruce, in an effort to distribute the Treasury Departments relief
quickly across the Nation, divided the country into sixteen regions. Each regional
area had a local art authority to conduct the work in that region. Most often this
person was a museum director who in their capacity knew the area artists and already
had an institutional base from which to conduct business. These regional directors
were charged with assembling advisory committees of prominent citizens and
officials. Once established, the committee took up the responsibility of locating tax-
supported facilities willing to display or commission artwork by the artisans seeking
relief in their areas.
In contrast, the WPA/FAP under the oversight of Woodward, allowed the
Federal One directors to run their programs out of Washington D.C. with the
oversight assistance of the WPA Womens and Professional Program state directors.92 93 94
As Ellen Woodward oversaw the professional projects of the WPA, by default the art
projects fell under her jurisdiction. Subsequently, a vast majority of the WPA/FAP
projects were administered by and through the state and local womens directors.
Whether this had an impact on women being recognized in the arts remains to be
92 A detailed explanation of the artists process will be outlined in the section: Artists as Employees of
93 Karal Ann Marling, Wall to Wall America (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press,
1982). p. 47,48.
94 Nick Taylor, American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA (New Y ork, NY: Bantam Books,
2008). p. 249.
The really important matter that we are trying to foster is the art life of the
communities and particularly the mental and physical conditions of the artist who are
the creative workers and sources of the art of the regions.95 For the sake of the
communities and the artists, both the Section and the WPA/FAP sought out
commissions for their artists, using the preferred method of their respective directors.
Generally the process was the same for both funding groups. The oversight
organization sought out locations to display or create artwork for. Then came the
compiling of information on the commission regarding the building specifications,
what types of work the buildings occupants preferred; whether it be easel work,
ornamental sculpture, or mural paintings. Once a location and the specifications were
secured, the call for submissions went out. The artists color sketches or other
specified requirements of the submissions would be evaluated, with selection of an
artist and a concept sketch as the final goal.96 Upon securing her commission, the
artist became an employee of the government.
For the artists, actors, and musicians of the 1930s this was their hope, the
programs of the New Deal. Work relief provided them the opportunity to continue
working in their chosen field, provided them with a national audience, and the
security wage to put food on their tables. As work relief for artists became
federalized, the initial apathy and antagonism of state and local administrations was
95 John Ankeney, Regional Director PWAP, Texas. ArtNews, "Official Report on Artists' Relief
Work," April 7, 1934: 10-11, 15-16.
96 (Ankeney, 10-11)
to a degree circumvented. The President and First Lady, with Hopkins, Woodward,
Cahill, Bruce, Rowen, and Flanagan, and joined by an army of artists, actors, writers
and musicians fought for the survival of the art programs and projects through-out the
1930s and early 1940s. The battle for program survival waged in the popular press,
and with the New York Times at the forefront of the attacks, turned the tide of public
support away from the arts projects. Ultimately, the close ties between a few
prominent vocal artist unions and the rising Communist Party, particularly in New
York and San Francisco, tolled the death knell for the arts programs. Congress reined
in the Red Threat by removing funding for the arts programs. What funding
remained was diverted to the programs generating support for the war effort, such as
print shops generating posters for war bonds. In this way, the demise of the New
Deal art programs ended the hopes of many, and began a new struggle for the arts in
the nation. 97
97 William F. McDonald, Federal Relief Administration and the Arts. (Ohio, 1975), p. 61.
CHAPTER 4: WOMEN ARTISTS OF THE WEST
For the first time our society put the artists in a position of being a
worthwhile productive citizen, worthy of support as an artist, not as a leaf-raker,
Fred Bartlett, a Colorado WPA artist, once said. His words were echoed across the
state, and the country, by myriads of artists who considered it a privilege to receive a
wage from the government. Under the leadership of Roosevelt, employment of artists
became part of the national reconstruction policy. From 1933 to 1943 and more
intensely from 1935 to 1939, the federal government supported and subsidized an arts
program that in size and character was unprecedented in the history of this nation."
Federal funding of the arts in the 1930s held a critical place in the development of all
the fine and decorative arts in America. Revolutionary in the support of the arts, the
government through funding and access provided a living for respected American
artists affected by the rampant unemployment of the Great Depression while
integrating the arts into the daily life of a community.
Funding also allowed artists the latitude to explore and develop uniquely
American art styles, to revolutionize artistic techniques, particularly in printing 98 99
98 Fred Bartlett, interview by Denver Public Library Western History Department, Federal Art in
Colorado, Denver, CO (1979).
99 William F. McDonald. Federal Relief Administration and the Arts. (Ohio, 1975). p. 2.
processes.100 Though complicated, the application and award process provided
women with opportunities for inclusion in public projects, thereby launching,
supporting, and establishing the careers of many of the great American women in the
arts, those with names such as Alice Neel, Louise Neveleson, Lee Krasner, and
photographer Dorthea Lange. Although never achieving the same levels of
recognition as the above artists, these programs held the promise of continuing in the
arts and an artistic future for these five women artists of Colorado.
What was the criterion for public arts funding, and how did the process of
awarding artists jobs provide women and minorities a window of opportunity?
Initially the format and regulations governing the projects developed in the work
relief programs of FERA. These regulations, with minor changes, continued through
all the art funding arms of the New Deal. The key regulations based application and
award on the following criteria: the project scope was to be outside normal
government activities and the projects could not compete with private enterprise in
the geographic areas in which they were implemented. Along with these two basic
stipulations, there were the three basic rules for a projects implementation. One, all
projects must be on public property. Two, projects must be worthwhile. The term
worthwhile left the scope of the projects open to a wide variety of interpretations,
100 Helen A. Harrison and Lucy R. Lippard, "Women Artists of the New Deal Era: A Selection of
Prints and Drawings," Exhibition Catalog (Washington, D.C.: The National Museum of Women in the
and created much of the controversies that dogged the projects. Three, no project
worker could replace an employed worker.101
Creative art projects, when first instituted under WPA sponsorship, had only
one restriction as to subject matter: it must be American.102 What then is an
American image? America, as the Depression Era public viewed it, found itself
embodied in what became known as the Section mural. The mural in the eyes of a
weary public became a fact, a documented event of the life of a community.103 It
became an outward expression of the community and its consensus about the nature
of their slice of American society. Along with the slice of life, New Deal art visually
underscored the publics response to the terrors, fears, and the grasping for hope
during the Depression Era, occasionally rising to moral judgments on social evils.104
The creation of an American art image was forged under the auspices of the
art programs directed by Edward Bruce, his assistant Edward Rowen, and Holger
Cahill. Artists began to paint Section and their work established the standard by
which America judged its art. Although Federal One under the direction of Cahill,
and the Section under the direction of Bruce had different mandates from their
charters, both contributed to the creation of this image, as did the work produced by
101 William F. McDonald, Federal Relief Administration and the Arts (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State
University Press, 1969). p. 16.
Karal Marlings text is critical to the research of New Deal art. Her work bridges the gap between
art historical constructs and American Studies of the New Deal. Karal Ann Marling, Wall to Wall
America (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1982). p. 63.
(Marling, p. 6)
1 (Marling, p. 6)
the Magafans, Caldwell Fisher, and Ronnebeck. Although the projects never came
together to fashion a consensus of what kind of art was compatible with a democracy,
the underlying conviction was that they were influencing public taste by providing
good painting and quality art.105
Holger Cahill, in September of 1935, was given the administration of the fine
arts branch of the WPA Federal One. Cahill, with his strong conviction that the arts
should be available for the enjoyment of the masses, viewed the project as an
opportunity to provide art for a nation. In fashioning a work relief program for artists,
Cahill saw an unprecedented opportunity to create a Cultural Revolution utilizing a
communal socialist-oriented arts organization.106 To his credit, he desired to put the
largest possible number of artists to work. Cahill strove to develop an effective arts
program open to the artistic everyman regardless of skill level: his ideal program
was one of collectivism, not individualism.107 Working within the constraints of
the federal bureaucracy, Cahill encouraged a free, creative atmosphere for his artists;
often this freedom landed him in the middle of controversy.108 Where Cahill was
frequently embroiled in controversy, Edward Bruce, Director of the Section of Fine
105 Jane De Hart Mathews, "Arts and the People: The New Deal Quest for a Cultural Democracy," The
Journal of American History Vol. 62, No. 2 (September 1975). p. 327.
106 Francis V. OConnor, (ed.) Art for the Millions. (Connecticut, 1973). p. 16-18.
107 (O'Connor, p. 16-18)
108 John Franklin White. Art In Action: American Art Centers and the New Deal. (Metuchen, NJ
1987). p. 81.
Art, exercised a low profile and judicious tact, holding tight the reins on the artists he
Bruce insisted his muralists, over those of Cahill, would produce superior art
precisely because they were not bound by the humanitarian venture. Cahill, on the
other hand, who was ideologically better suited to oversee the WPA/FAP and its
humanitarian venture, embraced John Deweys aesthetic keys: that process was
primary and product was secondary. Great art for Cahill would arise in situations
where there was a great deal of art activity.11 Stemming out of the guidance of Bruce
and Cahill, and combined with exposure and accessibility the art style American
Scene was bom, and Section murals became a particular species of popular art, or
social art whose primary function was to be liked by the American public.111
Out of the necessity for Holger Cahill to employ all artists on the relief rolls,
he and his staff widely diversified the projects available for work relief. Other than
the ubiquitous mural painting, WPA art projects included art in many forms. The
creative work was in graphic and plastic arts, including handicraft work, poster work,
arts instruction, mounting art exhibitions and compiling the indices of American
Design, and Indian Design.
109 Karal Ann Marling, Wall to Wall America (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press,
1982). p. 46-49.
110 Jane De Hart Mathews, "Arts and the People: The New Deal Quest for a Cultural Democracy," The
Journal of American History Vol. 62, No. 2 (September 1975). p. 322.
111 (Marling, p. 12)
Creative work on the WPA art projects was chiefly devoted to the production
of two-dimensional visual art. These original works, whether in oil, watercolor, or
etching were widely used in the decoration of tax-funded public spaces such as
hospitals, schools, and libraries. Sculpture was placed by both entities; the Section
and the WPA/FAP, in newly constructed public buildings and in the CWA or CCC
constructed civic or national parks. Works of art circulated throughout the country in
public exhibitions to the Nations newly opened art centers, or in portfolios
distributed to schools, colleges, and libraries. Handicraft work created in WPA
workshops, which included furniture, weaving, art glass, and ironwork furnished
public buildings. Posters, brochures, educational flyers, and in the war effort -
propaganda, were designed by the print division to advertise government and public
agencys health and safety campaigns, and promote civic programs.112 The Index of
American Design, a compilation of artists renderings and representational drawings,
in color, illustrated the development of the decorative and applied arts in the country,
from the colonial period to the early twentieth century.113
Artists employed on the WPA art projects also taught fine arts and handicrafts
to school children and adults. This course work was free or offered at a low cost to
participants. Free public lectures and classes in art appreciation were held in civic art
centers and galleries that the WPA built in regions lacking public art institutions.
112 U.S. Government. Final Report on the WPA Program 1935-43.p. 64.
113 John Franklin White, Art in Action: American Art Centers and the New Deal (Metuchen, NJ, 1987).
Wyoming, Arizona, Utah and Oklahoma were a few of the states in the West that
received art centers built with WPA funding.114
The American image was many things to a desperate nation. For Cahill, The
aim of the Project [WPA/FAP] is to work toward an integration of the arts with the
daily life of the community, and an integration of the fine arts with the practical arts,
was his goal.115 Bruce, working through the Section, wanted the art to improve the
Nations taste and weld its people into a whole.116 Colorado artists Ethel and Jenne
Magafan, Gladys Caldwell Fisher, Louise Ronnebeck and Laura Gilpin were female
artists who propelled themselves into national and international recognition through
their federal art project work.
Due to the nature of the specialized skills needed to produce an art project
joined with the availability and type of personnel required and the reluctance of
regional directors to conform to WPA general guidelines of federal relief
employment, the art programs functioned with a unique rulebook.117
In some cases, artists with recognized talents were courted and elevated to the
peak of the wage scale. This was definitely the case with the Magafans and Fisher as
114 John Franklin White. Art In Action: American Art Centers and the New Deal. (Metuchen, NJ,
1987). pp. 170-175.
115 Holger Cahill, Scope and Activities of the Federal Art Project, Women's and Professional Projects,
Works Progress Administration (Washington D.C.: Archives of American Art Rolll4NDA, -1936). p.
116 Jane De Hart Mathews, "Arts and the People: The New Deal Quest for a Cultural Democracy," The
Journal of American History Vol. 62, No. 2 (September 1975). p. 322.
117William F. McDonald. Federal Relief Administration and the Arts. (Ohio, 1975). p. 184.
the assistant director of the PWAP, Rowen, specifically sought out submissions for
projects from these artists.
Cahill, understanding the artists temperament, refused to require artists to
submit time cards for relief payments; instead, he established production quotas. He
unfortunately could not circumvent all government requirements, so WPA/FAP artists
signed in at project offices on a regular basis to receive their wages. This
disregard of work relief rules was one of the reasons the arts projects were looked
upon with disdain by members of Congress, eventually leading to tightened
regulations and reduced funding.
Another was the perceived high level of security wages paid to artists. The
WPA security wages for artists ranged anywhere from $94 dollars to $39 dollars a
month depending on which of the four pay regions they resided in.118 119 Asa
comparison, the average income of an American male worker in 1937 was $1,027 per
year in contrast to the national average for a woman of $525.120
Not all artists were paid a security wage, some were compensated for Section
murals based on the square footage of the completed work. In some cases, up to $20
per square foot, usually the payments were closer to $1.80 to $2.00 per square foot,
after material costs were deducted. An average award for a post office mural ranged
118 Nick Taylor, American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA (New York, NY: Bantam Books,
2008). p. 271-273.
119 William F. McDonald, Federal Relief Administration and the Arts (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State
University Press, 1969). p. 175.
120 Susan Ware, Beyond Suffrage: Women in the New Deal (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard
University Press, 1981).
from $400 to $700. Payment to the artist was made in stages, usually in the beginning
of the project and at its completion.
Edward Rowan, the Operational Deputy, regulated the PWAP and TRAP
murals. Rowan set up a schedule of graduated steps that the artist must complete.
Each of the graduated stages of conception, refinement, and completion, were
personally scrutinized by Rowan for any deviations to the stylistic or quality
standards outlined by the artist. The artists contract was only issued after feasible
themes for the mural were submitted to the Washington office. Only after receiving
Rowans personally signed letter of invitation did the real demands of the project
began. The artists submitted designs four times before they received their final
payment. The first a full color, scale rendering of the mural had to be submitted to the
Treasury Offices. The artist had to submit photographs of the work in progress, letters
of support from the recipient of the work stating approval, drawings with any changes
or adjustments, and reams of correspondence required by Rowan at each stage of the
murals execution. After review of the full-scale cartoon with accompanying
photographs, Rowan and his team of designers very clearly instructed the artist of any
changes they wanted implemented in the design. The artist, whether or not they had
ideas of their own, to retain the commission bent to the collective wisdom of the
Section.121 Photographs were submitted again half way to completion. The last set of
121 Karal Ann Marling, Wall to Wall America (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press,
1982). p. 48-51.
photos submitted arrived on Rowans desk at he completion of the project when
installation of the work was granted.
Even this institutionalizing of art within a federal project did not erase the
publics hostility toward the strangeness of artists or make the artists receptive to the
opinion of the people. Artists were viewed as a very strange race apart, recalls
WPA artist David Phillips. Mural viewers were inclined to suspect that the
creative strangers sent into their communities deposited a layer of offensive, critical
content into their mural. These viewers surveyed art as a distortion of the truth, and
until proven otherwise, believed that artwork was fated to be elitist, dishonest, and
potentially immoral.122 123 124 Pitted against these ordinary peoples reality were the artist
and the art. On the other hand, artists saw the role of art as a means of social and
community change. Their goal was to disseminate visual culture to the people.125
122 Brenadine Ratliff, Women Artists in the Federal Art Programs 1934-1939, Thesis (Missouri:
Northeast Missouri State University, 1992). p. 41.
123 David Phillips, interview by Denver Public Library Western History Department,, Federal Art in
Colorado, Denver, CO (1979).
124 Karal Ann Marling, Wall to Wall America (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press,
1982). p. 22, 23.
125 Francis V. O'Connor, ed. Art for the Millions (Connecticut, 1973).p.l 8.
CHAPTER 5: OPPORTUNITY FOR WESTERN WOMEN ARTISTS
Ethel Magafan, Jenne Magafan, Louise Emerson Ronnebeck, Gladys Caldwell
Fisher, and Laura Gilpin were five women artists of the West. These Western women
worked diligently at their craft in their chosen profession art. Suddenly these
female artists, like the rest of the country, were faced with a dramatic shift in the
economy the Great Depression. This economic shift changed and directed the rest
of their lives and their artistic careers. To their benefit, during the Depression they
were strategically placed in a community that maintained a significant, albeit
fledgling, art community.
By 1920, Denver was the second largest city in the West, behind San
Francisco. Denver was home to a strong network of social, political, and
educational resources. This network held the art and cultural community together
through the decade of want. As Gladys experienced and subsequently wrote to her
family in New York City, I have a much better chance of keeping busy in Denver
than in New York.126 127
Through the New Deal programs, these five artists were commissioned to
paint murals in Post Offices across the country, sculpt work for national parks, city
126 Betsy Fahlman, "Louise Emerson Ronnebeck: New Deal Artist of the American West," Woman's
Art Journal, Fall/Winter 2001/2002. p. 13.
127 Gladys Caldwell Fisher Papers. (Manuscript) Denver Public Library, Western History Department.
and federal buildings, and provide photos for the nations travel guides. In their
capacity as artists for the government, these women gained public acclaim and
recognition of their artistic abilities. Through their experiences with the government
funding of art projects, they also dealt with the public censure of their art. At times
the censure came from the public. At other times, they disagreed with the
Washington bureaucrats who commissioned the artwork. These women, like many
other artists and workers, waited for their paychecks which were delayed by the
bureaucratic red tape of the government. To reach job sites, these women rattled
around the country in old vehicles, lived in temporary lodgings, all in an attempt to
complete their commissions.
The work produced by the Magafans, Caldwell Fisher, Gilpin, and Ronnebeck
during the New Deal embodied the approved national artistic styles of American
Scene and Regionalism. They painted Section. Most of all, through their art they
dealt hope to their viewers. A hope for a better tomorrow, painted with a brush or cut
with a chisel, as part of the broad experiment of Roosevelt intended to rebuild the
Nation. Subsequently, their artistic recognition grew as a result of their
accomplishments. Work relief for these artists developed their skills, refined work
habits, and bolstered their morale. These women were set to work and paid a living
wage to create artwork. 128
128 U.S. Government, Final Report on the WPA Program 1935-43 (Washington, D.C.: U.S.
Government, 1943).p. 3.
The artists of Denver and Colorado Springs were strategically and
geographically placed on the Front Range. This location enabled them to benefit
from a wide variety of New Deal arts projects. The region and its artists were ripe for
the influx of funds, and were prepared to handle the commissions. The homegrown
artists of Colorado were nurtured by cultural and educational institutions and schools
built by a populace that valued a community enriched with art, music, and theatre.
The foundation on which the New Deal would build its programs in the West
was based on the nationally recognized Denver and Colorado Springs schools of fine
arts. The Denver Art Museum, the Natural History Museum, and the Denver Public
Library were also well-established institutions supporting the arts and artists in the
region. Ultimately, all three of these institutions directly benefited from New Deal
programs. Denvers arts organizations and institutions of the 1930s worked together
to promote the arts and artists of the region. These groups hung exhibitions, produced
publications, and extolled the national celebrity of their members.
A thriving and vibrant arts community however needs an audience: Denver
and the Front Range had wealth, patronage, and philanthropy on its side. A
significant factor, and a great benefit to the growth of the arts in Colorado, was the
impact of private patrons combined with efforts to build and maintain the areas art
institutions.129 Significant opportunities for Colorado women artists came through
the patronage and hard work of their philanthropic sisters. The philanthropy of
129 Smith-Warren, Katherine. Time and Place: One Hundred Years of Women Artists in Colorado
1900-2000. Exhibition Catalog. Denver, Metropolitan State College of Denver, 2000. p. 25.
wealthy and socially prominent women was a significant factor in the regional growth
of the arts.130 131 Interestingly it was primarily women, both as artists and patrons, who
established, supported, and taught at Colorado art institutions during the beginning of
the Twentieth century. Female students were the majority of attendees in the first
classes at the art schools of the University of Denver and the Broadmoor Academy in
Colorado Springs. The professional field of artist was promoted as a viable
career choice for women during the 1920s.132
Both Louise Ronnebeck and Gladys Caldwell Fisher held positions as first-
wave art instructors at the new University of Denver Art School. Also, exhibition
records indicate artwork created by women artists dominated the exhibitions in the
area prior to the 1930s. Although women were at the forefront of the arts in the
Denver area, men held most of the paid art professional positions. Women, if
employed as an art professional and working along side their male counterparts,
primarily received recognition for their supporting roles in the organizations.
Among the major proponents of the arts in the region were Henrietta
Bromwell, Elisabeth Spalding, and Emma Richardson Cherry whose active
participation in the Denver Artists Club and in founding the Denver Art Museum
established the city as a cultural center. These women along, with Anne Evans in
,30Katherine Smith-Warren,. Time and Place: One Hundred Years of Women Artists in Colorado
1900-2000. Exhibition Catalog. ( Denver, 2000). p. 25.
131 (Smith-Warren, p. 8)
132 Kimn Carlton-Smith, A New Deal for Women: Women Artists and the Federal Art Project,
Dissertation (NJ: Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, 1990). p. 116.
Denver, Alice Craig and Anne Gregory Van Briggle Ritter of Colorado Springs
supported the arts and artists across the Front Range. At the turn of the century,
establishing the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center an outgrowth of the Broadmoor
Academy the Denver Artists Club, and the Denver Art Museum, these
philanthropists and supporters of the arts provided the Front Range with the
beginnings of a society of culture. These organizations trained the women artists
of the region, provided them with the connections to establish careers, gave them
teaching positions, and placed Denver as the nexus of the New Deal Region Eleven.
During the early years of the Twentieth century, philanthropists Jean Chappell
Cranmer and her brother Delos Chappell donated the family home at 1300 Logan
Street for the use of creative artists.133 134 This location, known as Chappell House,
became the hub of Denvers art activity during the Depression. It was here that WPA
artists were housed, utilizing the propertys outbuildings for studio space. Not only
did this facility provide artists with a place to live and work, but also the Denver Art
Museum housed its collection of Native American artifacts and art collections under
Jean, joined by her husband George Cranmer, supported area artists by
providing them commissions, introductions to gallery owners and collectors, and
subsidizing scholarships for artistic training. During the 1930s, these key patrons also
133 Katherine Smith-Warren, Time and Place: One Hundred Years of Women Artists in Colorado 1900-
2000 (Denver, Colorado: Exhibition Catalog, 2000). p. 8.
134 (Smith-Warren, p. 26)
provided artists with the basic necessities of housing, food, and clothing. It was
through their earlier philanthropy that Gladys Caldwell Fisher, a recipient of an
Allied Arts Scholarship sponsored by the Cranmers, was given the opportunity to
travel and study in New York and eventually Paris. Cranmers patronage continued
into the Depression, providing Fisher with lodging at Chappell House and a number
of private commissions.
The Cranmers luxurious home, equipped with a swimming pool and horse
stables, was the site of many a gathering of the Wests cultural elite. George
fortuitously liquidated his stocks and bonds shortly before the crash of 1929, thus
retaining his wealth when others around him had not. Known to flaunt their vast
resources, the Cranmers support of the arts and artists was tinged with the
unmistakable tendencies of noblesse oblige, emphasizing the chasm between the
haves and have nots in depression-strapped Denver. The cost of the Cranmers
patronage was the requirement to attend the continual social functions sponsored by
Philanthropists George Cranmer, Anne Evans, and Helen Perry held
significant places in the lives and careers of these five Colorado female artists. As a
significant patron of the arts, George Cranmer held a seat on the Region Eleven Arts
Committee. This committee secured the federal arts project commissions and
assigned the artists who would complete them. As Gladys states in a letter to her
135Katherine Smith-Warren. Time and Place: One Hundred Years of Women Artists in Colorado
1900-2000. Exhibition Catalog. (Denver, 2000). p. 26.
family, It is very good for me to be in Denver now where the people who hear about
such things [bids and commissions] and approve the sketches are my best friends.136
Anne Evans, philanthropist and daughter of territorial Governor John Evans,
facilitated a number of artists careers via commissions and connections as a gallery
owner in Denver, Central City, and Estes Park.
One woman who figured greatly in the lives of many Denver artists,
especially the Magafans and Fisher, was Helen Perry. Miss Perry, as her students
referred to her, encouraged these women as their art teacher at East High School. She
supported her students dreams, regaled them with stories of her adventures in Paris,
and introduced them to the work of artists like Matisse, Picasso, and Cezanne. Her
guest lecturers were local artists and architects. These people also provided
mentoring opportunities for her students. Helen Perry exposed these Westerners to
the arts, and in profound ways impacted their future careers. Perry introduced the
Magafan twins to the muralist Frank Mechau. Mechau later apprenticed the twins.
The Magafans assisted him with his federal mural art projects. Through him both of
them were introduced to the arts community and trained in the process of mural
painting. Mechau provided Jenne and Ethel contacts in Colorado and in New York
City, while providing them with the necessary skills to survive the Depression as
136 Gladys Caldwell Fisher Papers. Denver Public Library, Western History Collection. 1907-1952.
137Katherine Smith-Warren. Time and Place: One Hundred Years of Women Artists in Colorado
1900-2000. Exhibition Catalog. (Denver, 2000). p. 30.
Although not an art center like New York City, Colorado proved to be a good
launching pad for the careers of these five women. It was here they received their
education, had patrons who provided them support in times of need including
everything from a roof over their heads to commissions. It was in the state of
Colorado the New Deal directors found them and put them to work creating the
artwork of a nation.
CHAPTER 6: LOUISE EMERSON RONNEBECK
What the well dressed lady artist shall wear while in the throes of
creative art has been solved by Mrs. Arnold Ronnebeck, professionally
known as Louise Emerson.
A rose-colored or pea green smock you ask? My, no!
Overalls, says Mrs. Ronnebeck and she suits action to the word.138 139
Louise was a hard-working artist, admired for her integrity and intelligence.
Often found clad in overalls and perched on a ladder, she garnered the respect of local
art critics who proclaimed, she painted like a man. In her overalls, Louise
Emerson Ronnebeck was an anomaly. The daughter of the founder and director of
the Emerson Institute, she lived much of her early life in Great Britain and New York.
Graduating from Barnard College in New York in 1922, she spent the summer of
1923 in France studying at the Academy of Art in Fontainebleau. She also studied at
the Art Students League in New York City in 1926.140 That same year she married
her husband. Arnold Ronnebeck, was a German sculpture and painter, whom she met
while visiting the Taos Art Colony of Mabel Dodge Luhan.141 Recently married, the
couple moved to Denver, where Arnold had been offered the position of Director of
138 Kasper Monahan, "Denverite Leads Overall Style for Women Artists," Rocky Mountain News,
139 Betsy Fahlman, "Louise Emerson Ronnebeck: New Deal Artist of the American West," Woman's
Art Journal, Fall/Winter 2001/2002. p. 17.
140 Phil Kovinick and Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick, An Encyclopedia of Women Artists of the American
West (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1998). p. 263-264.
141 Katelyn Cain, "A contribution to Colorado Artist's Biographies," ed. Stephen Savageau (Denver,
CO: Savageau Galleries, March 26, 1994). p. 1.
the Denver Art Museum. Their stay in Denver was intended as a short stop on the
way back to New York. As life would have it, the couple stayed on and became two
of Denvers most influential artists.
In a time when women generally set aside their careers when they had
children, Louise was productive as an artist after their birth, and through the early
years of her children Arnolds (b.1927) and Ursulas (b. 1929) lives. As reported by
the Rocky Mountain News: Denverite Out to Prove She Can Be Mother and Artist;
Mrs. Ronnebeck Believes She Can Be Both. The journalist was quick to point out,
Even in her pursuit of modernisms, there is enough of the conservative to make her
give the two children first attention.142 This article, in graphic terms, displayed the
conflict of mother verses career particularly in an era that focused on motherhood.
One of the many arguments but possibly the most often voiced against women
receiving work relief positions in the New Deal, was the womans place was in the
home. Tied to this reason was that children were healthier and home life happier if
women did not work.143 In the 1930s, it was considered the goal of the normal
womans life to acquire a husband, a family, and a home not a career. The tasks of
taking care of a family and household could not, for the normal woman, be relegated
to others.144 Louise held the belief that she should first be a woman and mother, and
after that an artist. In light of this belief, it is not odd for her to have insisted that
142 Margaret Smith. Rocky Mountain News, February 10, 1930.
143 Susan Ware, Holding Their Own: American Women in the 1930s (Boston, Massachusetts: G. K.
Hall & Co., 1982). p. 27.
144 (Ware, p. 16)
even with her pursuit of modernisms, she fed the children herself. As reported in the
Rocky Mountain News interview with Louise, she is quoted as saying, Many artists
who have tried mixing family with paint have declared it wont work.145 She
worked hard to prove that it would. Louise was once described as a four-handed
woman managing home and children on one side, with teaching and painting on the
As many artist mothers do, Louise often used her children as models in her
work. Some of these paintings reflect the uneasy balance of family duties in her two-
artist household. It was through the practice of portraying her children in paint that
established the main source of her artistic income portraiture. The Denver parents
who commissioned them prized her portraits of their children.
Louise, having married at the beginning of her art career, worked hard to
establish herself as a professional artist. Not only did she face establishing herself as
an artist during the early years of marriage and motherhood, but also at a time that
coincided with the onset of the Depression.147 Subsequently, her most noted work
was completed for the New Deal.
Three years after the couple settled in Denver, the Depression began. Louise,
along with her husband, sought work with the WPA and TRAP. Between 1937 and
1944, she entered sixteen mural competitions, winning two. The sheer number of her
145 Rocky Mountain News, (Denver) 10 February, 1930.
146 Denver Post, (Denver) 3 November, 1946
147 Betsy Fahlman, "Louise Emerson Ronnebeck: New Deal Artist of the American West," Woman's
Art Journal, Fall/Winter 2001/2002. p. 12.
entries demonstrated Ronnebecks considerable professional discipline, confidence
and hard work.148 The first Section mural was originally painted for the Post Office
in Worland, Wyoming entitled The Fertile Land (1937), for which she was paid
$570.149 This was a substantial income for a woman in 1937, as a womans average
yearly income in that year was $525.150 The second mural she completed of the
Section of Fine Art was for the Post Office in Grand Junction, Colorado. This work
was titled Harvest (1940). She was grateful for the work and said, What would the
artist do without the government?151
The Worland post office mural was offered to Louise on the basis of her
submission to the competition for the El Paso, Texas competition. She was given 119
days to complete the ten by four and a half foot mural. Rowan wrote to Ronnebeck.
In that letter, he stated that the mural was to be a simple and vital design based on a
theme appropriate to the locale. With this directive, she submitted four sketches to
Washington. It was the sketch depicting the Native American and pioneer past -
recently displaced by an economy of oil production, and ranching made possible by
148 Betsy Fahlman, "Louise Emerson Ronnebeck: New Deal Artist of the American West," Woman's
Art Journal, Fall/Winter 2001/2002. p. 13.
149 H.R. Dieterich and Jacqueline Petravage, "New Deal Art in Wyoming: Some Case Studies," ed.
Katherine Flalverson and John W. Comelison, Annals of Wyoming (Wyoming State Historical Society)
Vol. 45, No. 1 (Spring 1973): 53-67.
150 Men earned an average of $1027 in annual income in 1937. Susan Ware, Holding Their Own:
American Women in the 1930s (Boston, Massachusetts: G. K. Hall & Co., 1982). P. 27.
151 (Fahlman, p. 13, 14)
irrigation that was determined to be the most appropriate. She started her painting
in the spring of 1938, completing the work m June.
Louise spent a good deal of her 119 days explaining and defending her
conception and painting to the director of the PWAP Rowan. The problem centered
on her treatment of the mythic and historic elements she wished to use that depicted
the Native Americans and bison of the area in the painting.
Although personally identifying herself as a modernist, her paintings are
emblematic of the nationally popular style of Regionalism. Her images conform to
the popular stereotypes of western settlement, using standard thematic conventions.
Her work featured such western themes as southwestern landscapes, the pony
express, pioneers and settlers, the Indian wars, and ghost towns.152 153 154 Even so, Rowan
toughly vetted her designs, suggesting changes in the composition, the structure and
her use of design elements. She daringly responded to his scrutiny in a letter,
...the American artist in preparing sketches for mural competitions must
put in perhaps a month or two of time, looking up, rejecting and selecting
subject matter before he can even start working on his actual designs. I
feel that an artist could express himself plastically with more freedom if
he were not obliged to make literary or historical choices of subject
matter, for which his training and endowments may not fit him.155
152 H.R. Dieterich and Jacqueline Petravage, "New Deal Art in Wyoming: Some Case Studies," ed.
Katherine Halverson and John W. Comelison, Annals of Wyoming (Wyoming State Historical Society)
45, no. 1 (Spring 1973): p. 60.
153 H.R. Dieterich and Jacqueline Petravage, "New Deal Art in Wyoming: Some Case Studies," ed.
Katherine Halverson and John W. Comelison, Annals of Wyoming (Wyoming State Historical Society)
45, no. 1 (Spring 1973): p. 60.
154 Phil Kovinick and Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick, An Encyclopedia of Women Artists of the American
West (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1998). p. 263.
155 Betsy Fahlman, "Louise Emerson Ronnebeck: New Deal Artist of the American West," Woman's
Art journal, Fall/Winter 2001/2002. p. 16.
Rowan of course disagreed with her missive, but responded, My firm belief
is that the entire direction of mural painting must in the final analysis be determined
by the artists themselves and not by a small group who for the time being happen to
be in charge here in Washington.156 Ironically that is exactly what he and the rest of
Washington were doing to the artists of the mural projects. Protest did not alter the
fact that she changed her design to Rowans specification. Once the mural was
installed, Rowan wrote that he was glad the artist had persisted with her ideas that
combined the mythic and realistic. In her letter of completion sent to Rowan,
Ronnebeck noted that the mural pleased the people of Worland and she had enjoyed
executing the commission. The Worland postmaster also endorsed her work as a real
addition to the building. The successful completion of this mural added to her
growing reputation along the Front Range as an artist.157
The second commission she received was her tribute to the worth of water and
the fruitful harvest of Grand Junction, Colorado. Using realistic elements, and
symbolically represented subject matter, she emphasized the richness that came to the
land following the introduction of irrigation to the Western Slope of Colorado. In the
artists report to Edward Bruce, chief of the Section of Fine Arts, she says the
156 Betsy Fahlman, "Louise Emerson Ronnebeck: New Deal Artist of the American West," Woman's
Art journal, Fall/Winter 2001/2002. p. 16.
157 H.R. Dieterich and Jacqueline Petravage, "New Deal Art in Wyoming: Some Case Studies," ed.
Katherine Halverson and John W. Comelison, Annals of Wyoming (Wyoming State Historical Society)
45, no. 1 (Spring 1973): 53-67.
In the foreground I have depicted a farmer and his wife gathering the fine
peach crop for which this section is noted...on the right I have shown the
departure of the Ute Indians pressed onward by the white settlers revealed on
the left. The symbol of irrigation the waterwheel appears in the middle
distance, and the mesas...form the background...158
A successful easel painter, Ronnebeck painted in oil, tempera, and
occasionally in watercolor. Fresco, painting into wet plaster, was Louises preferred
medium and she completed a number of fresco murals for the WPA. Her work was
found in schools, churches, and hospitals in the Denver area. Subsequently her most
important works were the fresco murals she completed under the federal programs.
Few of these works survive today, but they are known through the surviving sketches
and period photographs.
Ronnebeck was achieving recognition as a respected artist, although she lost
some of her drive with the death of her husband in 1947. She credited her husband
Arnold with being determined that she not stop working for one moment. It was
around the time of his passing that she refocused her creative energies on teaching at
the University of Denver (1945-51) and with magazine illustration. She eventually
moved to Bermuda to teach in a private high school. It was in Bermuda that she
completed her final mural in 1966. Returning to Denver in 1973, she lived in the city
until her death seven years later.159
158 Undated newspaper clipping (-1940). Possibly from the Rocky Mountain News, (Denver).
159 Betsy Fahlman, "Louise Emerson Ronnebeck: New Deal Artist of the American West," Woman's
Art journal, Fall/Winter 2001/2002. Betsy Fahlman, "Louise Emerson Ronnebeck: New Deal Artist of
the American West," Woman's Art journal, Fall/Winter 2001/2002. p. 13.
Louise Emerson Ronnebeck Mountain Picnic Oil on Canvas
University of Denver Denver, Colorado
Louise Emerson Ronnebeck Harvest 1940
Oil on Canvas, 72 x 102
Mural created for the Grand Junction Colorado Post Office, now hanging in the
Wayne N. Aspinall Federal Building, Grand Junction, Colorado.
CHAPTER 7: GLADYS CALDWELL FISHER
Gladys Caldwell Fisher was bom in Loveland, Colorado and moved with her
family to Denver at the age of twelve. She started modeling animals with clay when
her father brought home Colorado clay he had gathered in the Foothills. She began
her art training at Morey Middle School and under the direction of Miss Helen Perry,
her East High School art teacher, she went on to study sculpture at the Beaux Arts
Atelier in Denver. It was here that her lifelong relationship with art patrons Jean and
George Cranmer began. She received the prized Denver Allied Arts Scholarship in
1926. Then it was off to New York City to study at the American School of
Architecture, where she trained under New York sculptor Alexander Archipenko.
After receiving a second Allied Arts Scholarship, she studied art in Paris from 1927
to 1929. Returning to the States at the start of the Depression, Gladys found work
teaching and freelancing in New York until her return to Colorado in 1932.160 The
return to Colorado was precipitated by an offer of a position at the University of
Denver and the largess of the Cranmers. On the grounds of Chappell House, she was
supplied with a small bedsitter, the use of one of the outbuildings for a studio, and a
commission for a frog sculpture to grace the Cranmers swimming pool.
160 Phil Kovinick and Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick, An Encyclopedia of Women Artists of the American
West (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1998). p. 93-94.
After a meeting with Anne Evans, President of the Denver Arts Commission,
and Architect Fisher, Gladys wrote home, The Cranmers and many others are
certainly giving me a chance to meet the right people.161 162 It was Jean Cranmer who
drove her out to Coors Ceramics to contract with Mr. Coors to do piece-mould
ceramic work. Jean also helped her locate businesses willing to sell the ceramic
work. As a result of this connection, in 1935 while working with Coors Ceramics,
Gladys designed ceramic buffalo mascots for sale to Boulder college students. These
ceramic bison represented the newly chosen mascot for the schools new football
team. Coors plan was to sell 600 buffalo mascots, and from the sales, Gladys would
receive fifteen cents for each statue sold.
In 1933 Gladys wrote to her family in New York City:
I am anxious to know how you are getting along with the banks closed-or are
they all closed in New York? I think I will get along alright especially if the
banks open by Wednesday as I havent received my check from D. U. for this
quarter yet.. ..I have enough food for breakfast for a week and three dollars
cash, which is much more than most people have now.163
Due to her familys severe economic crisis in New York, and possibly to
monitor Gladys health, Isabelle, Gladyss sister joined her in Denver. Together they
shared the bedsitter and what income they could gather from their sporadic work.
Initially Isabelle was able to find a steady stream of work as a clerical temporary, but
soon this work became sporadic, and eventually dried up-not surprising since the
161 Gladys Caldwell Fisher Papers. (Manuscript) Denver Public Library, Western History
Department. 1907-1952. July, 1932.
162 (Caldwell Fisher Papers, January, 1935.)
163 (Caldwell Fisher Papers, March 5, 1933.)
jobless rate in Colorado in 1932 was 50%.164 When the FERA work relief programs
were instituted in Denver, Gladys applied for a position but was prevented from
benefiting from the work relief program due to Isabelles sporadic income which
amounted to $80 a month. So there was no work for Gladys through FERA. It
became a case of the relief rules being applied to their household income.165
It was through the PWAP that Gladys was set to work. The PWAP projects
were not directly tied to economic need, but on the artists abilities and the projects
available. In January of 1934, she began work on a relief sculpture for the fourth
floor of the new City and County building in Denver. She was excited about this
opportunity to develop a large work since I have been on my own and free
lancing.166 So she dug a trench in the back of the Chappell House using this to hold
the 10 x 6 stone slab as she carved the base relief images of Indian orphans and
wild animals. She was paid around $35 a week for her work. The relief American
Indian Orpheus and the Animals was installed on the fourth floor of the City and
County Building in Denver. Then in April, after moving the stone carving to the city
hall, she wrote home, writing that she expected her pay to be discontinued, but had
164 Nick Taylor, American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA (New York, NY: Bantam Books,
2008). p. 9.
165 Gladys Caldwell Fisher Papers. (Manuscript) Denver Public Library, Western History Department.
1907-1952. August 1934.
166 (Caldwell Fisher Papers, Jan 25, 1934.)
managed to save $270, and hoping she would not run out of money before another
commission was lined up.
It was in January of 1935, that Mr. Savage, chief designer of the Boulder Dam
(now named the Hoover Dam) approached Gladys with the job of creating two small
reliefs for the scale model of the dam. With the successful completion of this project,
Gladyss capabilities as a sculptor came to the attention of Edward Bruce in
Washington. Caldwell Fisher, in assessing her chances of receiving the federal
commission to complete the actual reliefs on the Boulder Dam, shared her doubts
with her sister. Isabelle relates the doubts in a letter to her family, She has explained
to me that it would be just impossible for a young woman sculptor to handle such a
big thing alone, not that she couldnt do it, but that it just wouldnt go over among all
the officials that are involved.
It was in February of 1935, following her work on the Boulder Dam model,
that she received a letter from Edward Rowan requesting a portfolio of her work.
Shortly after this request, she was put to work designing and sculpting the Rocky
Mountain Big Horn Sheep statues that now reside in downtown Denver.167 168 169 Originally
designed for the newly constructed Denver Post Office, they now grace the entrance
of the Federal Judiciary building.
167 Caldwell Fisher Papers. (Manuscript) Denver Public Library, Western History Department. 1907-
1952. April 28, 1934.
168 (Caldwell Fisher Papers, January 25, 1934.)
169 Located on 20th Street on the south side of the Federal Court House in Denver, CO.
Working for the director of TRAP, Gladys received a salary of $98 a month,
allowing her to hire two assistant artists and a stone carver from the relief roles. It
was this project that brought her recognition and publicity.170 The 1930s were really
the beginning of Gladyss professional career. She received four government
sculpture commissions, and was awarded the last commission for sculptures for the
Mammoth Hot Springs Post Office in Yellowstone in 1938, completing the
commission in 1941. She struggled to finish the carvings and was hampered in the
completion because of a severe bout with appendicitis in 1939 and the birth of her
first child in 1940. With the combination of private and governmental patronage
Gladys was able to continue working throughout the 1930s.
In 1936, Gladys Caldwell married Alan Fisher, an architect of the firm Fisher
and Fisher. George Cranmer actually had the honor of giving her away at her
wedding. By the early 1940s, Gladys and Alan had two children. In 1947, after six
years of retirement, Caldwell Fisher displayed the life-size Himalayan Collar Bear
carved in black Belgian Marble. When asked why she had not exhibited for a number
of years her response was as follows:
I was often tempted to put my children under glass and place them on
exhibit...People were always asking what I was doing. I found it impossible
to combine anything else with caring for two little children. But now, with
both my work and my family, I feel as though I were having my cake and
eating it, too.171
170 Katherine Smith-Warren, Time and Place: One Hundred Years of Women Artists in Colorado 1900-
2000 (Denver, Colorado: Exhibition Catalog, 2000). p. 27.
171 The Rocky Mountain News. (Denver) 16 June, 1947: 5.
Her relationships with the Cranmers and the Ronnebecks helped her
throughout the years of the Depression. Laura Gilpin worked with both Gladys and
her husband providing them with photographs of sculptures and buildings for
promotional materials. Through these connections, Gladys was able to gain teaching
positions and commissions that provided her with income for the rest of her art
career. Gladys continued these relationships for the remainder of her life, which
unfortunately was a short one. Liver and heart disease caused her death in 1952 at the
age of 46.172 Without the work relief for the arts in the 1930s, Gladys would have
found it difficult to continue as an artist, in particular as a woman sculptor.
172 Katherine Smith-Warren, Time and Place: One Hundred Years of Women Artists in Colorado 1900-
2000 (Denver, Colorado: Exhibition Catalog, 2000). p. 26-27.
Gladys Caldwell Fisher Rocky Mountain Big Horn Sheep 1936
Tom Pyle, 1979
Located at the Byron White U. S. Courthouse,
1823 Stout Street
Gladys Caldwell Fisher Himalayan Collar Bear 1947
Western History Collection of the Denver Public Library Denver, Colorado
CHAPTER 8: ETHEL AND JENNE MAGAFAN
Ethel and Jenne Magafan were identical twins bom in Chicago to hard-
working parents in the year 1916. Because of family conflicts and health concerns
Petros Magafan relocated his young family to Colorado Springs in 1919 and then to
Denver in 1930. It was in 1932, at the height of the Depression, when Petros
suddenly passed away. With his passing the twins lost the support of a father who
believed in their artistic talent and encouraged them in the pursuit of art for a career.
It was with the assistance of Miss Perry, their East High School art teacher, who
furthered their dreams of becoming artists. She assisted them with their tuition to
study at Mechaus School of Modem Art in Denver.173 Eventually they were able to
scrap enough money together through scholarships and prize money to attend the
Broadmoor Academy in Colorado Springs. The twins were able to continue their
studies at the school with the apprenticeships they received from Frank Mechau. In
1937 and again in 1938, Jenne along with Ethel, Eduardo Chavez, and Dorothy
Duncan assisted Frank Mechau with his WPA mural commissions. Frank Mechau
and his wife Paula had moved from the Denver area to live in Redstone, Colorado.
173 Frank Mechau (1904-1946) was a frequent guest speaker at East High School art classes.
Considered an accomplished muralist he trained and utilized the following artists as mural assistants:
both of the Magafans, Edouard Chavez, and Dorothy Duncan. All of these artists went on to careers in
art. Each one also completed one or more murals for New Deal art programs.
Redstone was where the Magafans joined him as art apprentices.174 175 As apprentices he
taught them how to paint large-scale murals, and more importantly, introduced them
to the major artists along the Front Range. In this way Mechau provided both women
with critical connections that propelled them into the Front Range art community.
Their training in mural painting eventually lead Jenne to securing
commissions for four federal murals, one of which earned her recognition in 1942
with the Peixotto Memorial Prize for Murals. It was Ethel who received her first of
seven federal commissions at the age of 26. She was the youngest artist in America
to receive the honor of a Post Office mural. In 1937, Ethel was awarded a prized
commission for a mural in the Senate chamber in Washington D.C. Murals located in
the Federal Buildings in Washington were the most sought after and prized
commissions offered by the Treasury Department.
In contrast, Ethel lost a commission for the Fort Scott, Kansas post office.
This loss was heart wrenching. Ethels painting depicts the Lawrence Massacre, a
massacre that took place because of the towns abolitionist activities. The Lawrence
women are depicted in the painting defending their homes and families against an
early morning raid where 400 men attacked the population and burned the town to the
174 Katherine Smith-Warren, Time and Place: One Hundred Years of Women Artists in Colorado 1900-
2000 (Denver, Colorado: Exhibition Catalog, 2000). p. 29-31.
175 Ernest Peixotto Memorial Award was awarded to an American mural artist under the age of thirty.
Jenne Magafans submission, Cowboy Dance was unanimously chosen to receive the $100 prize.
Cowboy Dance was installed in the post office of Anson, TX. The Denver Post. (Denver) 14 June
1942: Sec. 2 p. 4.
In a letter from Edward Rowan, superintendent of the Section, he informed
her of the censorship and the end of her commission for the Fort Scott post office
In our estimation it was one of the best compositions that was submitted in
the competition and very ably handled but unfortunately you chose a theme
which the people of the locale are trying to forget and we did not feel justified
in overriding the committee on this point.. .On the basis of this competent
work I am recommending you to the Section for a future appointment on
another building. It may be some time before you hear from us.. .176
Ethel learned her lesson; art and censorship are never far apart. When one
encroached on the other, art generally lost. The mural study Lawrence Massacre
was donated to and now resides at the Denver Art Museum.177 Ethel went on to
complete five other murals for the Section, one of which is the Horse Corral at the
South Denver Post Office.178 As reported in the Denver Post, this picture goes a
long way to establish this artists reputation as a mural painter.179
Ethel focused her mural subject matter on a regions agriculture and industry.
Subtly, she pushed against the limitations of the neutral subject matter dictated by the
Section. In a mural for the Wynne, Arkansas post office she presented an image of
noble African American workers. The mural Cotton Pickers sent the message to a
176 Ethel Magafan Papers. (Manuscript) National Archives, Roll 14 NDA. 1936 1949. 23 April, 1937.
177 The painting Lawrence Massacre was displayed at the New York Worlds Fair in the exhibition
of American Art Today. It was purchased by fair authorities and donated to the Denver Art Museum.
It was one of 31 purchase awards. The Rocky Mountain News (Denver) 31 January, 1940.
178 The mural design was approved by Boardman Robinson, one of her instructors from the Fines Arts
Center in Colorado Springs. (Magafan Papers. 18, June 1941.)
179 Fred Bartlett. The Denver Post. (Denver) 14 June, 1942: Sec. 2, p. 4.
deeply segregated south that competent men of any ethnicity are entitled to evaluate
the worth of their labor.180
In 1941 Ethel and Jenne were to undertake the decoration of the Board Room
of the Social Security Building in Washington D.C. Rowan sent the following letter
of congratulations to them on the successful submission of the design: Having
followed your work for a number of years it gives me the greatest pleasure to tell you
that this latest work is in my estimation the finest you have achieved.181
Ethel, Jenne, and Ed, Jennes husband, worked together on their mural
commissions. They applied to the competitions for murals at every opportunity.
When one of them secured a job they would load up the old station wagon, with
canvas and paint, head off to the location, and complete the project. Working as a
team, they could complete the murals faster than working alone. If they lived
frugally, one commission could cover their expenses for approximately a year. We
all needed money but the encouragement to be able to go on painting was even
more important, Ethel recalled later in life.182 They usually received up to $20 a
square foot for each mural, with an average mural adding $700 to $1,400 to their
180 This is a paraphrase of a quote from Art Historian Susan Valades-Despena. Alisha Patrick,
American Muralist; Painter of Abstract Western Landscapes, (Exhibition catalog) prod. Sullivan Goss;
An American Gallery. (Santa Barbara, California) www.sullivangoss.com 22 July, 2008.
181 (Magafan Papers. 12 September, 1941)
182 Katherine Smith-Warren, Time and Place: One Hundred Years of Women Artists in Colorado 1900-
2000 (Denver, Colorado: Exhibition Catalog, 2000). p. 31-33.
Having met in high school and after working together as artists for years,
Eduard and Jenne eventually married. The marriage became strained with Eduards
return from serving in World War II. Eduard became progressively envious of
Jennes continuing success as an artist. Jenne died in 1952 at the age of 36 from a
cerebral hemorrhage shortly after returning from a Fulbright Scholarship trip to Italy.
Ethel married Bruce Currie, whom she met at an artist community in
Woodstock, New York. The Curries were married in 1946 and had one child, Jenne
Magafan Currie (b. 1956), named after the sister Ethel mourned for the remainder of
her life. Ethel continued to paint and teach art. At the age of seventy-five she passed
away with a brain hemorrhage, as had her sister years before.183
The considerable government support they both received throughout the
Depression set the stage for their future development as artists. The recognition they
received launched them past the social barriers of being bom female in a lower class
family of an immigrant. Their father believed in them, and his belief was well placed
in his daughters. They became the artists he said they could be. After the Depression
and World War II, both Jenne and Ethel continued successful art careers. By the end
of the 1940s, they were surviving as artists in New York.
183 Katherine Smith-Warren, Time and Place: One Hundred Years of Women Artists in Colorado 1900-
2000 (Denver, Colorado: Exhibition Catalog, 2000). p. 34.
Ethel Magafan Lawrence Massacre 1936
Egg Tempera on Panel, 15 5/8 x 40 3/16
Denver Art Museum
Ethel Magafan Cotton Pickers c.1940
Tempera on Masonite panel, 9 x 25 14
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Mural Study for Wynne Arkansas Post Office Mural
Jenne Magafan Cowboy Dance 1941
Oil on Fiberboard, 23 7/8 x 30 3/4
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Mural Study for Post Office in Anson, Texas
CHAPTER 9: LAURA GILPIN
Laura Gilpin started her art career at twelve with a birthday gift of a Kodak
Brownie camera and a development kit.184 At the age of seventeen, working with a
couple of friends, she was able to teach herself the complicated autochrome
photography process. Her work from this period shows the innate sense of
composition that would later be a defining feature of her photographs. Moving with
her family throughout the state of Colorado she developed a love for the landscape of
the West. It was this enduring love of the land and the Native peoples of the West,
with which Gilpin created her own niche in the photographic world.
In 1911 the enterprising Gilpin launched a successful turkey business. In
1916, with the profits from the sale of the business she was able to study photography
in New York and eventually travel throughout Europe to study the art. Her training at
the Clarence White School of Photography, where Clarence White instructed his
students artistic design principles, could be applied to the new medium of
photography. Complications from the Influenza Epidemic of 1918 ended her studies
in New York when she returned to Colorado to recover. In 1922 she was able to
expand her art education with a trip to Europe. With the loss of her soft focus camera
lens over the side of the steamer, she was forced to change the way she shot her
184 Martha Sandweiss, Laura Gilpin, An Enduring Grace. (Fort Worth, Texas: AmonCarter Museum,
1986). p. 38.
photos, forcing her to use the lens she had with her. This lens changed her work and
gave her the signature look of her photographs. Gilpins work became sharp focused
with enhanced value gradations. This became her signature style.
Due to the audacity of her mother Gilpin was introduced to the famous female
photographer Gertrude Kasabier. Kasabier, after viewing Lauras photographs
became a part of her network of supporters and mentors. Gilpin continued her
photography in the face of often-crushing financial and family responsibilities. After
her mothers death in 1927, she took on the responsibility of caring for her father and
younger brother, both physically and financially.185 Thankfully, as a photographer
she was able to make a living, sometimes scantily, from the commissions from
portraits, weddings, and with commercial photography.186
Her first trip to Mesa Verde in 1924 brought her into contact with the Native
American people of the region. This came through the opportunity of a broken
vehicle on the side of the road. Such was the beginning of a long relationship with
the native South-westerners. In 1931 her partner, Betsy Forster, helped foster the
relationship after taking a job as a field nurse in the Navajo community in Red Rocks,
Arizona. While visiting Betsy, Gilpin developed a deep interest in the native people,
culture, and the region. Today, she is most widely known for her images of the
185 Martha Sandweiss, Laura Gilpin, An Enduring Grace (Fort Worth : Amon Carter Museum, 1986).
186 Katherine Smith-Warren, Time and Place: One Hundred Years of Women Artists in Colorado 1900-
2000 (Denver, Colorado: Exhibition Catalog, 2000). p. 21-23.
people and the land of the Southwest.187 188 189 Laura Gilpins connections to the West are
well documented in the four books she published about the Southwest. The
combination of text and images became the format for all her books. These books
included images of the land and its indigenous people. She did not follow the
ethnographic mode that typically characterized the view of the Native American of
the era. She approached her photographs of the peoples of the Southwest as she
would any portrait or image. Gilpins keen empathy for her subjects was fueled by
humane concern for the condition of the people she was recording with her camera.
These early photographs now have a documentary value she did not intend. The
photographs she made between 1931 and 1934 provide a visual record of the Navajo
and Pueblo tribes. Overlooked by the federal Farm Security Administration
photographic surveys, her humanitarian photos documented a disappearing way of
life. She recorded the Navajo and Pueblo people, homes, community; including
ceremonies and rituals of their way of life. In this way, her photographs are some of
the few that record the Native culture of the Southwest before, and during, the
ravages of the Depression.
Gilpin was faced with financial challenges even before the Depression started.
As the main financial support for her family, she was faced with an even greater
decrease in income during the Depression. Photographic portraits were not a
187 Martha Sandweiss, Laura Gilpin, An Enduring Grace (Fort Worth : Amon Carter Museum, 1986).
188 (Sandweiss, p. 57.)
189 Katherine Smith-Warren, Time and Place: One Hundred Years of Women Artists in Colorado 1900-
2000 (Denver, Colorado: Exhibition Catalog, 2000). p. 22.
necessity and her income base dwindled. Gilpin, with the help of Forster, turned
again to turkey fanning to support themselves, her father, and brother through the
lean years of the Depression. Her turkey business did well until the turkeys started to
die off. She suspected the machinations of a neighboring turkey farmer for the
demise of her stock. This was never proven, but it spiraled the familys finances
Laura continued to enter, and win, photography exhibitions until she no longer
had the funds for the entry fees. It was a sad day for her when she had to write to a
curator that she could no longer enter competitions because of financial concerns. It
was at this time that the WPA director of New Mexico, Aileen Nusbaum, requested
Gilpin to submit some of her photographs for inclusion in WPA New Mexico State
Travel Guide. She submitted a body of work to the WPA offices in New Mexico.
The work was included in the New Mexico Travel Guide. These guides were one of
the most popular programs to come out of the WPA projects. Guides were produced
for most of the States through the WPA/FAP Writers Project.191 The New Mexico
Travel Guide not only supplied Laura with much-needed income, but her work gained
her national exposure. Publisher, Walter Frese Hasting was made aware of the
photographic work of Gilpin. He contracted Gilpin, requesting a portfolio of work
showing Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park. After seeing the portfolio, the
printers dummy was set on March of 1941, and the book, The Pueblos: A Camera
190 Martha Sandweiss, Laura Gilpin, An Enduring Grace (Fort Worth : Amon Carter Museum, 1986).
191 (Sandweiss, p. 65.)
Chronicle, was available for sale in December of 1941. It was this book contract that
sent her back to work professionally as a photographer.
For over 60 years, Laura Gilpin continued to photograph the land she loved -
the American West, producing an extraordinary document of the land and its
192 Martha Sandweiss, Laura Gilpin, An Enduring Grace. (Fort Worth, Texas: AmonCarter Museum,
1986). p. 66
193 Randal Hackley. Rocky Mountain News. September 27, 1986. p.75
Laura Gilpin Navajo Madonna (Lilly Benally) c. 1931
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
Laura Gilpin Bryce Canyon 1938
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
CHAPTER 10: CONCLUSIONS
The WPA/FAP and the Treasury Department provided opportunities for these
women to continue working through the Depression. The opportunities and
connections they made through their experiences as government employees became
points of departure for the development of their careers in the arts. They used these
opportunities to launch their careers independent of government funding after the
Depression came to a close. Ethel and Jenne Magafan, Louise Ronnebeck, Laura
Gilpin, Gladys Caldwell Fisher received benefits, some monetary and many
intangible, from their opportunities and experiences in the New Deal art programs.
The benefits of the New Deal programs were demonstrated by their lives and
their careers. In many ways the Great Depression and New Deal functioned as a
catalyst that brought significant changes to the lives of these women. This time of
economic struggle solidified their art in various ways. Although they represent a
small sample of female artists the art programs impacted, these women were able to
continue working as female artists in the West. Their stories demonstrate the positive
effects of government and private patronage of the arts in the 1930s. It was through
the open forum of federally funded arts that women artists were provided an
opportunity to prove and establish their credentials and themselves on a national
The federally funded art organizations, administrations, and projects provided
an unprecedented lifeline for the arts, providing opportunities, which would have
remained unavailable without federal funding. As Holger Cahill said, Without
government projects, art in this country virtually has no place to go.194 Funding
also opened the door for unprecedented numbers of women to explore their creative
talents in a wide variety of art and fine art endeavors. They received public
recognition and validation for their work. They were able to work side by side with
men in print workshops across the country, or on mural projects. They were able to
compete in a blind selection process, allowing women the opportunity to compete
artistically on the merit of their work, and not be subjected to gender bias. Without
this funding, and the egalitarian attitudes of the Roosevelt administration, women
would not have made the subsequent exponential leap in numbers as nationally
recognized artists, or received validation as professional artists in the subsequent
decades. The full impact of these programs and the ways in which they actually
altered the overall structure of the market situation for all artists, then and now, is still
an open question. Even so, there is no question that New Deal art programs and
funding did open new frontiers for women and ethnic groups in the arts.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, with the First Lady, the directors, and all the artists,
actors, and musicians who were strategic in the support of the arts, created a lasting
legacy for that generation, this generation, and the ones to follow. In the words of
194 New York Times. (New York) 19 December 1937
Orsen Wells, the WPA Director of the Negro Theatre in Harlem, A man can get
along without a painting, but a generation cannot.195
195 Orson Wells. Congress, Senate, Committee on Education and Labor, Bureau of Fine Arts:
Hearings before the subcommittee on Education and Labor. 75th cong., 1st sess., 28 February 1938.