“A Dire Need for Good Pictures”: New Deal Art Projects in Kansas

The 1930s witnessed one of the longest and deepest periods of economic devastation in modern history. To combat the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised a “New Deal” for the American people through government programs aimed at providing relief to the unemployed. The most famous of these was the Works Progress Administration (WPA), tasked with carrying out public works projects such as the construction of bridges, roads, and school buildings.

The WPA’s Federal Art Program (FAP) provided jobs for artists and craftspeople in need. The FAP and other New Deal arts programs were also intended to serve as a source of uplift and public enrichment. As K-State’s John F. Helm, Jr., head of the Kansas FAP, wrote in 1936, supplying art to schools in a state “where there is a dire need for good pictures … will be not only assisting good artists, but also developing art appreciation.”

Numerous artists featured in this exhibition worked for New Deal arts programs in Kansas and other states, among them Gustave Baumann, Woody Crumbo, John Steuart Curry, Aaron Douglas, Oscar Howe, Birger Sandzén, and Grant Wood.

A gothic tower rises behind the dark rooflines of clapboard houses and out—stretched trees. The structure, resembling a cathedral, is Topeka High School.  

Mary Huntoon created this print of her alma mater almost two decades after she graduated. Tower is one of eleven prints she produced for the Kansas Federal Art Project (FAP). She also was the project’s state supervisor from 1936 to 1938. 

Huntoon was an accomplished painter, printmaker, and art therapist, studying with George M. Stone at Topeka’s Washburn University and Robert Henri and Joseph Pennell at New York’s Art Students League. She moved to Paris in the 1920s, where her works were first exhibited.  

After her return to Kansas in the early 1930s, Huntoon taught at Washburn before being hired by the Kansas FAP. She later developed art therapy programs for the Menninger Foundation.

Mary Huntoon
Born 1896, Topeka, Kansas
Died 1970, Hoyt, Kansas

Tower, 1937
Etching and aquatint

Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project, Kansas

7 x 8 1/4 in.

Olathe Indian Creek Library

Ethel Spears
Born 1903, Chicago, Illinois
Died 1974, Navasota, Texas

WPA Cutting Down a Tree, ca. 1938
Opaque watercolor and graphite on paper

Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project, Illinois
Allocated to Topeka High School

23 5/8 x 31 in.

Kansas State University, Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art, gift of Ted and Kathy Clark in memory of Myra Diehl Clark, 2016.30

Spears’ depiction of WPA laborers gains its energy from its many figures and its playful composition. Diagonals cut through verticals—as tree trunks, branches, ladders, ropes, and pathways.  

Spears attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, studying textiles and fine art. She returned to the school in 1937 as an educator, teaching silkscreen printing, ceramics, design, and other media for more than twenty years. Spears worked for the WPA’s Illinois Art Project in the late 1930s and early 1940s, painting no fewer than twenty-three murals for public buildings in Chicago.  

Two of Spears’ murals for schools have been removed from view because of student and parent concerns that their all-White subjects do not reflect the schools’ current demographics. In this image, the artist has rendered at least one WPA worker in darker skin tones, perhaps indicating a multi-racial workforce.  

Topeka High School received this painting in 1943. As New Deal programs were shutting down, with the US shifting to a war economy, the government distributed program artworks beyond the states in which they were created. 

Joseph de Martini
Born 1894, Mobile, Alabama
Died 1984, Boston, Massachusetts

Harlem Fish Market, 1935-1940
Oil on canvas

Works Progress Federal Art Project, New York

30 x 24 in.

Winfield Public Schools, USD 465 Foundation

Avis Chitwood
Born Mound City, Kansas
Died 1994, Topeka, Kansas

Columbine, Phlox and Vetchling from the portfolio Kansas Wildflowers, 1937-1943

Kansas Museum Extension Project, Professional and Service Division, Work Projects Administration

10 1/8 x 8 in.

Wichita Public Schools, USD 259, Robinson Middle School

This print was part of a portfolio of Kansas flowers commissioned by the WPA’s Museum Extension Project, a New Deal program that produced visual aids for schools and libraries. A 1941 catalog describes the portfolio as “a set of color plates showing wildflowers of Kansas from early spring through late autumn” and indicates the prints were made “especially for visual aid in the study of nature, art, reading, language or storytelling” at elementary and middle school levels.  

Chitwood was a printmaker, illustrator, and multi-disciplinary craftsperson. She is best known for her depictions of flowers, birds, and architecture and her collaborations with fellow Topeka printmaker Margaret Whittemore. Chitwood studied under Mary Huntoon at Washburn University and Clara Hatton at the University of Kansas.