The Civilian Conservation Corps Art Program (CCC) 1934 – 1937
There were few, if any options for artists in January of 1934. It was the beginning of a new year and a hard winter during the height of the Great Depression. It is said to have been the cruelest of times. A month earlier the government had initiated the first ever federally funded art program. The Public Works of Art Program (PWAP). Unemployed artists, of ability, were offered assignments to create work that would depict the “American Scene”. Among them a few selected artists were sent into CCC camps to make a pictorial record. The PWAP was administered by a special section within the Treasury Department and met with the direct approval of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), CCC Director Robert Fechner and overwhelming support of Eleanor Roosevelt. The CCC assignments, perhaps not as esteemed, required a person who was physically fit and adaptable to out of doors work. It is no surprise that a majority of the CCC artists were young. When the PWAP ended in the spring of 1934 so did almost all government funding for unemployed artists. Again, with FDR’s direct approval arrangements were made to continue the role of a CCC artist.
My discovery of this quiet part of American Art history was accidental. In researching a CCC camp in the Adirondack Mountains a photo was found of a young man, Hans Held, posing in a studio setting surrounded by his CCC art. Beside him was a work in progress, a large mural painting depicting the forest activities and work of the CCC boys. This art would eventually grace an entire wall of the CCC camp Recreation Hall. The caption beneath the official CCC photo described him as “Camp Artist”. (1)
It took a few moments to register the meaning of the photograph.
There were artists at the CCC camps?
Further research revealed that Hans Held was one of many artists assigned to CCC camps. Questioning every source I knew of at the time left all of my queries unanswered. Who were these artists, why were they doing this, what became of them and their art and why the CCC? What was found was that this research had never been done before.
What started out as quest to find the story of Hans Held and his CCC artist assignment has evolved into a project that will take years and countless miles of travels.
It did not take long to realize why this program has been unsearched. Perhaps because the CCC artist program was massive. It encompassed almost all the lower 48 states, lasted 3 ¾ years and involved hundreds of people. Many of the records are
scattered and the art missing.
For many untried young artists the CCC tour would be the beginnings of their careers and for several older, seasoned artists it is what kept them from pounding the pavement in search of work and off the bread lines during the Great Depression.
The CCC Artist Research: Notes from the 2011 treks in search of the art, artist and the stories of the: “Idle Artists of the Great Depression – A Pictorial Record of the CCC” begins with the research of an Iowa artist.
John Sharp – CCC Artist 1934 – NY, Rockland CCC camps
Photographing the original CCC art of Iowa artist John Sharp in Eldon, Iowa was a prearranged stop on the summer 2011 trek. As was a visit to the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch which gave us a better understanding of the 31st US President and also insight into the relationship with his successor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt the 32nd US President (2)
We found a nice county park campground situated between Eldon and West Branch , in Ainsworth, Iowa and set down the levelers on our bus for several days. The county park is a popular one – Marr Park – Washington County Conservation Center. Returning one evening, after a days research, we were surprised by an unexpected balloon launch.
Around this time the national news was reporting possible GPS navigation problems because of “sun spots”. What should have been a straight route between Ainsworth and Eldon was a puzzling series of directions that pointed us into the middle of Iowa cornfields and onto private dirt roads. Perhaps an easier route (sans a Garmin 465T Nuvi) existed in the early 1930’s when those traveling to Eldon, to experience an experimental art exhibit, arrived in the small booming railroad community of “2,000 inhabitants where many had never seen an original work of art. Edward Rowan (3)
Edward Rowan, Director of the Little Gallery in Cedar Rapids received a grant from the Federation of Arts and brought a month long art exhibition to the small town of Eldon, situated in the lower Des Moines River Valley (3)
Rowan also arranged for drawing and watercolor classes along with art and music appreciation sessions, free of charge to the general public. Weekly exhibits were well received as was the work of Iowa artists, Grant Wood of Cedar Rapids and the young, aspiring Eldon artist, John Sharp (1911-1966).
Eldon history credits the inspiration for the house seen in the famed “American Gothic” painting by Grant Wood to a driving tour John Sharp gave Wood on his first visit. The hope for a permanent art museum in Eldon or Cedar Rapids never materialized but the careers of Wood, Rowan and Sharp would be forever changed. (4)
The Eldon Carnegie Public Library, dedicated in 1913, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is just up the block from the childhood home of John Sharp. The busy town is said to have had 13 grocery stores in the 1930’s. After a time the railroad would no longer run through Eldon and by 2009 the population had dwindled to 967. (4,5)
Sharp was an established artist living in New Hope, PA when the local newspaper reported one of his return visits to his parents still living in Eldon. The article highlighted the donation of his art to the town and how successful he had become. Sharp never forgot his Iowa roots and the small town of Eldon has never forgotten John Sharp.
Two of Sharp’s oils and one large framed reproduction of a WPA post office mural (Sharp did three post office murals) can be found inside the Eldon Carnegie Library. To the right of the entrance, prominently placed is the portrait of “Sam & Dave”, two Pennsylvania Dutch farmers.
But the expected CCC art was not in the library, my heart sank. A few phone calls by the Librarian and Director (Thank you Brenda and Christina) directed us to the American Gothic House Museum, on the other side of town. There we found the two John Sharp CCC “colored pencil drawings” from 1934, the ones we had traveled to see.
The drawings depict typical interior scenes of a Rockland County, New York CCC camp during that cold winter of 1934. Sharp “wouldn’t paint anything unless it was something that really struck his fancy” (6)
Exhilarating as it was to finally see these two drawings there was an unexpected and puzzling find.
In 1933 – 1934, John Sharp was living at 36 Charles Street in Manhattan attending art school in NYC. He was among the artists, based on their qualifications and need of employment, selected to be included in the NYC, Region 2, PWAP art program, a position wildly sought . The subject matter assigned was the “American Scene” in all its phases.” CCC camps were intentionally included, one way to show the life and work of this popular New Deal program. The PWAP CCC artists were both male and female and were given the title: “Roving Artist” because they did not stay long at a camp.
Around the same time, Edward Rowan had accepted a PWAP Treasury Department appointment and moved to Washington DC. He was now working very long and equally exciting days at the PWAP headquarters. Grant Wood remained in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and was part of the Iowa PWAP, Region 7, subcommittee. All three remained in communication. (7)
The two CCC drawings, by Sharp, that currently hang in the American Gothic Center gallery, appear to have the early matting and are in their original frames. Just as they were sent from the Treasury Department in Washington DC over 77 years ago.
The reverse side of one frame has the original brown paper backing, now brittle and torn, it appears it may have been partially removed and then taped back. The other frame back has a newer paper backing.
Both have the official authentication sticker attached which denotes the PWAP DC headquarters address and the declaration: “This picture is the property of the United States Government”. The sticker titles the art; artist, region (NY was Region 2) and both are dated March 24, 1934. Also, on the frame with the original brown paper, is an additional sticker from the Washington DC framer advertising their services. An indication that the complete framing was done in DC before shipment to Iowa.
On the front of both frames is the unmistakable, somewhat tarnished, official 1934 government issue brass plaque: Public Works of Art Project.
A question surfaces in regards to the finished framing of the two Sharp drawings. Was the art shipped framed with the glass ready to hang?
This would be very unusual; numerous letters from Rowan over the course of the CCC art program (8) address the disposition of the CCC art. In almost all cases framing was done by the receiving tax payer supported group, organization or government office. Canvases were shipped unstretched, watercolors and drawings packaged separately. Yet the Washington DC framers advertising sticker on the back of the Sharp drawing suggests otherwise.
Were they framed in DC for another purpose? The disposition date on the two Eldon pieces is March 24, 1934.
The following month there was an important exhibition in Washington DC. April 24 – May 24, 1934, the Corcoran Gallery of Art hosted the “National Exhibition of Art” presented by the Public Works of Art Project. The exhibit was to present a cross section of the work done under the project and for weeks there was a flurry of activity at PWAP DC headquarters preparing for it.
Night letters were sent to regions that were thinly represented requesting they ship their best PWAP work immediately, framing and mounting would be done in DC. This show would be a pivotal exhibition in respect to validating the governments’ sponsorship of an Art Program. A continuation of the program was hoped for, which would require more government support, a good showing was critical.
Displayed in the central gallery of the Corcoran Museum were several paintings depicting E.C.W. Camps, (ECW denotes Emergency Conservation Work – the early name for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)). Among them was a “painting” by John Sharp titled: “A E.C.W Camp”. (9)
Perhaps there were multiple works, by Sharp, that were framed and readied for the exhibit and only one was selected? Perhaps the other two were shipped to Eldon?
Then there is the question regarding the camp number as written on the matt of the Recreation Hall image.
Unfortunately, the exact location of CCC Camp #46 remains a mystery. It was not unusual, especially in the early days of organization of the CCC, for a company (who would carry their own company number of three or four digits) to move around to different camp locations to work on temporary projects. These projects/camps would also receive a number (usually one – three digits) which might explain the two digit, “Camp #46” seen on the matt front of “ECW Recreation Hall”.
Some projects/camps were short lived, existing for only a few months. When a camp/project was abandoned the company of CCC boys would be moved to another camp location. Regrettably, there are holes in CCC reports and many records are missing. Unfortunately, specifics for Camp #46, for now, fall into an unknown location.
But it is known that John Sharp was assigned to two CCC camps in Tuxedo and Blauvelt NY, both with train depots that still connect to NYC. It is also known that other PWAP “Roving” artists, also from NYC, were assigned to Rockland County, NY CCC camps as well. They would have been picked up at the train depot by a CCC company truck and transported around that way. In the winter of 1934 they didn’t stay long in the NY CCC camps. (10)
The art of John Sharp is preserved and displayed in Eldon, Iowa. The approach to the small town is no longer a dirt road. Route 16 is a peaceful drive past fields of green corn stalks and an even greener rolling landscape of soybeans. As you come into town the Eldon Carnegie Library is on your right. After your stop, continue down Elm Street and look for the brown historic markers which will guide you the short distance out of town to the American Gothic House.
Bring your camera. The museum encourages it and even provides an assortment of sizes for the country dress, bib overalls and authentic glasses to be used to make a self-portrait in front of the historic “gothic” house. Curator Holly Berg not only assisted with the John Sharp research she also helped position us for our “Gothic” portrait and clicked the shutter.
We are grateful to all at the Eldon Carnegie Public Library, the town of Eldon, Iowa and the Curators, past and present, at the American Gothic Center for being so receptive to our visit as we continue with our journey and documentation of:
The Idle Artists of the Great Depression – A Pictorial Record of the Civilian Conservation Corps.
1 – CCC camp yearbook 1937 – Speculator New York and the Adirondack Museum, Blue Mountain, New York
2 – Herbert Hoover Presidential Library West Branch, Iowa
3 – News clipping, interviews and records in the collection of the American Gothic Museum, Eldon Iowa (AGH)
4 – wapellcounty.org/americangothic/educate/eldon.htm
5 – Eldon Carnegie Public Library, Eldon Iowa (www.eldon.lib.ia.us)
6 – American Gothic Museum Collection – Brother Ed Sharp May 1, 1988 letter courtesy AGH
7 – 1935 Official PWAP Report page 2, 39.
8 – NARA records of the PWAP
9 – Art Exhibit program – April – May 1934 – John Sharp Art # 298
10 – First PWAP “Bulletin” issued by the Treasury Department – 1934
Special thanks to Al & Marlene Markus. Regrouping at your Colorado ranch was just the tonic we needed as we continue along with this research. Plus your view of the Rockies just knocked our socks off.