Remembering Gordon Parks in 2012

Today, November 30th, would have been the 100th birthday of the great photographer and 1942 Rosenwald fellow Gordon Parks. We posted about a centennial exhibition of his work at Manhattan’s Schomburg Center in July of this year. Today’s Lens blog on The New York Times website has an excellent article by Parks scholar Deborah Willis regarding a lesser known part of Parks’ career, his fashion photography.

In the early 1960s, I sat in my mother’s beauty shop in North Philadelphia reading Life magazine and discovered the photographs of Gordon Parks. I wasn’t even a teenager, yet I still remember vividly the effect those photo essays had on my life: over the course of the next decade I read his autobiography, “A Choice of Weapons,” and devoured almost all of his stories in Life.

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Murals depicting African American life and history to be restored in Harlem

Robin Pogrebin for the New York Times reports that as Harlem Hospital gets a substantial makeover, a group of large murals that have graced the walls of the hospital since the 1930s are undergoing a multimillion dollar restoration. The murals were commissioned as part of the Federal Art Project of the WPA in the 1930s, and depict a variety of scenes from the history, everyday life and symbolism of African American culture. The murals, which have deteriorated and in some cases been covered up, will have a place of honor in a new publicly accessible gallery in the hospital.

A panel from Charles Alston’s “Modern Medicine,” WPA mural in Harlem Hospital
Photo credit: Columbia University

Among the murals is a diptych by Charles Alston entitled “Magic in Medicine/Modern Medicine,” which shows the history of folk medicine alongside modern innovations and contemporary doctors. Alston, who received consecutive Rosenwald fellowships in 1940 and 1941, was a primary driving force behind the murals. The WPA initially blanched at the black-centric subject matter, citing concerns that the content could offend the black community and claiming it was shortsighted to focus on black history in a community that may not always have the same racial complexion. Their misguided criticisms may have resulted from the fact that, according to the New York Times, this was perhaps the biggest federally-funded art project to date that commissioned black artists. In response to the WPA’s pushback, Alston formed the Harlem Artists Guild (with another Harlem-based Rosenwald fellow, Augusta Savage) and successfully lobbied the WPA into allowing the project to proceed. The murals were worked on by a wide variety of artists, including other Rosenwald fellows such as Ronald Joseph.

 A panel from Vertis Hayes’ “Pursuit of Happiness,” WPA mural in Harlem Hospital
Photo credit: Columbia University

In addition to Alston’s murals, “Pursuit of Happiness” by Vertis Hayes is a particularly interesting part of the collection. One panel of Hayes’ work in particular (pictured above) depicts the migration of African Americans from the rural south to northern industrial cities. This hopeful painting utilizes a dramatic symbol of progress, a giant cog, which is a common motif in art from the time period that depicts African American history, and can be seen in artworks by two Rosenwald fellows: Lamar Baker’s “Ezekiel Saw The Wheel,” and Aaron Douglas’s “Aspects of Negro Life,” pictured below. The latter was another WPA-commissioned mural and was originally displayed in the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library (which is nearby to Harlem Hospital as well as the Harlem Rosenwald YMCA).

A panel from Aaron Douglas’s 1934 “Aspects of Negro Life”
Photographed by Hane C. Lee (flickr)

Below is an excerpt from “A Study of Negro Artists,” a 1937 film which depicts several Harlem artists at work. The video is cued to a scene from the film that shows muralist Aaron Douglas painting in his studio. Douglas received his Rosenwald fellowship the same year the film was made, probably on the strength of his recent WPA murals and the paintings he contributed as cover art to Rosenwald fellow Claude McKay. With his grant, the New York-based artist traveled to the south to gain new inspiration for his work. If you stay tuned to the film, the next section features another WPA muralist named Palmer Hayden.

“A Study of Negro Artists,” 1937
Video credit: The Prelinger Archives / The Internet Archive

Although it was initially resistant, the WPA’s Federal Art Project became a valuable patron of African American art. It’s no coincidence that there are many intersections between the WPA and the Rosenwald Fund. In the early twentieth century, before the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rosenwald Fund and the WPA worked toward a common purpose, and together they made up a huge proportion of the support nationally for black artists.

This blog featured some more murals a couple of weeks ago by a different Rosenwald fellow, Hale Woodruff. Daniel Schulman has written that Charles Alston shared Woodruff’s spirit of experimentation, moving between different artistic styles. It’s great that both of their works are being restored and displayed publicly.

By Michael Rose

Unpublished manuscript by Rosenwald fellow discovered in New York

Last week, in the New York Times, Felicia R. Lee reported about a Columbia doctoral student’s discovery of a heretofore unpublished and basically unknown manuscript by the great Harlem Renaissance writer, intellectual and Rosenwald fellow, Claude McKay. Amiable With Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep was found in a personal collection of rare books and papers left by deceased publisher Samuel Roth. The novel has been authenticated by several scholars and McKay’s estate gave its permission for it to be published.

McKay received his first Rosenwald grant at a turning point in his career. In 1935, he had already published his famous novel, Home to Harlem, and two others, and after this time he focused on autobiography and poetry. The discovery of this new manuscript changes that picture, however. 1933’s Banana Bottom was thought to be McKay’s final novel, but now it appears this 1941 book is his last work of fiction. Two years after completing Amiable With Big Teeth, McKay received another grant from the Rosenwald Fund in 1943 (again for creative writing).

Quoted in the Times, Henry Louis Gates Jr. is enthusiastic about the discovery of the novel for its contemporary depiction of attitudes in black cultural life and for the light it sheds on the later, less well documented, period of the Harlem Renaissance. The novel’s satire of communists illuminates McKay’s personal politics and also provides a look into a different facet of his artistic practice.

Earlier this year, another unknown novel by a Rosenwald fellow was discovered: Woody Guthrie’s House of Earth.

By Michael Rose

Unpublished book by Woody Guthrie may be product of Rosenwald Fund grant

On July 9th, five days before the late Woody Guthrie would have turned 100, Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp published some surprising news about the folk singer in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Brinkley and Depp have discovered an unpublished and basically unknown novel that Guthrie wrote in the mid-1940s entitled House of Earth. Inspired by his time spent in the Dust Bowl, the novel is an anti-capitalist ode to rural folks of modest means. The novel’s title comes from the partially underground, sun-dried brick dwellings constructed by poor tenant farmers in New Mexico during the Great Depression.

GuthrieWoody Guthrie in 1943
Photo credit: New York World-Telegram and the Sun / Library of Congress

Guthrie was one of the better-known personages to receive a Rosenwald Fund grant. In 1943, the New York Times reported that he was given a fellowship from the Rosenwald Fund for “folklore” (Rosenwald archives list it under “Language & Literature”) a financial award that would enable him to “write books, ballads, songs and novels that will help people know each other’s work better” (The New York Times, May 10, 1943). Until now it’s been unclear what use Guthrie put this award to: unlike many arts fellowships, the Rosenwald Fund did not require benchmarks and updates from its awardees. Guthrie likely received the award on the strength of his 1943-published and critically acclaimed autobiography Bound for Glory and with this news, it seems entirely possible that he used it to write House of Earth.

The mid to late 1940s were Guthrie’s last productive years (after 1950, Huntington’s disease began to take its toll) and the freedom provided by his Rosenwald grant allowed him to craft the stories, drawings, poems and songs he produced during this period. Depp and Brinkley’s report hints that House of Earth may be the most significant piece of art Guthrie produced after Bound for Glory. In their article, they call it a “minor masterpiece,” saying that it “successfully mixes Steinbeck’s narrative verve with D. H. Lawrence’s openness to erotic exploration.”

It’s unclear why the novel was never published. Alan Lomax, Guthrie’s friend and supporter at the Archive of Folk Song of the Library of Congress (who also encouraged him to apply to the Rosenwald Fund) was enthusiastic about getting it published after reading the first chapter. Depp and Brinkley are currently co-editing the manuscript and looking for a publisher. If it’s published this year (65 years after Guthrie completed it in 1947) it will be a fitting tribute to the great folk singer on this centennial of his birth. Celebrations of his work including concerts and panel discussions will take place nationwide through the end of the year.

By Michael Rose