Michael Lenson
(1903 - 1971)

By Harlan Phillips Nutley, New Jersey October 30, 1964
Transcribed and edited by David Lenson

HP: Let's find out what the devil you were doing from 1927 to 1929. You can go back a little earlier if it seems important.

ML: Well, during those years I was batting around New York. I was a student, I was painting. I was doing whatever I could to pick up a dollar, just like everyone else. My roommate then was Louie Guglielmi, and Prestopino lived next door. We all roosted in a little place on 116th St. and Third Avenue, one of those condemned wooden houses where the pipes froze in the winter and there was no water at all. You'd wake up in the morning with snow on your blanket. It came in through the clapboards.

Then the Chaloner National Competition took place. In the previous year Guglielmi had come in second, and it was generally conceded that he had a very good chance this time. The total award was four years abroad, travel and everything else -- about $10,000. So we all went through the motions of submitting our work, and lo and behold I got it.

HP: In the midst of leaking clapboards...

ML: Yes. It was fantastic, absolutely fantastic. All of a sudden all my worries fell away and I was aboard ship. All my relatives who considered me a no-good deficit to the family were waving farewell to me. I was a bigshot, and off I went. This was in 1928. I went to England and studied at the University of London's Slade School for a while on recommendation from the Chaloner fathers. It's a wonderful school for draftsmen, probably the best in Europe, and I had seven months of it. I've never regretted it.

HP: Does this have a deep tradition for them?

ML: It's the English tradition. It may be academic drawing, but brother, can they draw. They're fabulous. Then I went to Paris and made my headquarters there, traveled to Italy a couple of times, and Spain and the Netherlands. But in 1928 and 1929, as you know, the ground suddenly began to go over here. We didn't realize just how serious it was. By the time I returned in 1932, there was nothing. I was no more a conquering hero. I came back here to nothing. My family had to see me through some very tight situations. And then came the WPA.

When it first came along in New York, I didn't think about it too much. I don't know exactly why. I guess it was because there was a means test, you know? You had to prove yourself a pauper, and I couldn't very well. Although I was broke, my family had a business, and they were doing decently. My oldest brother was a doctor. So I couldn't qualify. Then I moved over to New Jersey and stuck around for a while. I had some friends here and finally applied. I made it, and got on the mural project.

HP: What was the process? Did you have to see someone, talk to someone, or did you just qualify because you were an artist?

ML: Because I was an artist. I went into the office on Halsey Street in Newark and made out my papers. You had to prove, of course, that there was nobody to bail you out. You couldn't have an old beat-up car even. You had to have absolutely nothing. So you didn't tell all.

Pretty soon they assigned me to a mural, and I competed with some other artists for the design. It was the one in Verona, at the Essex Mountain Sanitorium. I had assisted an English muralist, Pauline Gill, while I was over there, so I had a feeling for it. Yet I'd never really done a sizeable job. Well this one was 75' x 16', uninterrupted wall. And wouldn't you know, they liked my design the best. So I had to learn all about mural painting fast.

I had to find out about sounding a wall. I had to find out about gouging the wall and filling in pockets, and about buying a large canvas and mounting it. I had to find out everything. They gave me a group of four assistants, and off we went. We spent almost two years on this mural, "The History of New Jersey." Colonial and contemporary history, including the Battle of Trenton with 75 people slugging it out.

About this time the people in the office found out I had a tendency to talk, belonged to artists' organizations, held offices and so on, and they began to use me in various situations to speak up for the WPA. Then they decided I was supervisory material, and made me Assistant State Supervisor in charge of the Mural and Easel Division. The whole thing from beginning to end lasted seven years.

HP: Did New York as a regional office also include New Jersey?

ML: Yes, it did. Before I was made a supervisor I had no contact with New York. Then when I had to assume responsibility for other people I needed to talk New York, Geoffry Norman, Lou Bloch and several other people. I wanted them to know what was going on. Periodically they'd come out and visit. Audrey McMahon was also one of the heads in New York.

So off we went, and began to formulate the program. This place on Halsey Street was huge. We set up shop there, a corner for offices and the rest of it a giant workshop. There were two adjacent buildings, really. In one area, all kinds of men were put in to do all kinds of furniture. Ostensibly it was furniture designed by the artists, but for the most part they did a lot of repair work for City Hall -- did beautiful desks for them and so forth. We didn't mind that. We overlooked it. But on the other side, we set up a big mural division, and tables where mosaics were done. In one corner was a lithograph press, and in the front was a gallery where we showed paintings and prints by the artists on the Project. These were then assembled into exhibitions that traveled all over the state to various places and institutions. But do you want to talk a little more about the murals?

HP: Yes. The process of submission of a sketch for this mural...

ML: My mural was submitted to the Board of Freeholders of Essex County. They themselves chose the design. They were interested in decorating the main dining room of the Essex Mountain Sanitorium, a TB hospital.

HP: How conversant were you with New Jersey history? Did you have to research it?

ML: Oh yes, of course. I spent time in the library. I found out many fascinating things. There is a whole revolutionary history of New Jersey that very few people know about. Very few people know that the first outbreak against the Crown took place in Newark. That for non-payment of taxes a group of Newarkers were thrown into prison, and their friends stormed the jailhouse and liberated them, and then went to the courthouse and pulled the wigs off the judges. They threw British officials into the jail and locked them up. Incidents like this presented wonderful opportunities, and we used them. We also researched industry in New Jersey. Things like nails, for example, that had previously been imported from England, were now being manufactured right in Newark. And there was Seth Boyden's discovery of steam and locomotion. In the process of painting the mural, I got myself an education.

Subsequently I did murals for City Hall in Newark, which are still there. I produced a design on the history of Newark and had it accepted. They gave me a staff of assistants and we carried it out. Except that one was done in the shop and then mounted on the wall, whereas in the first one the canvas was mounted and the whole thing was done right there on scaffolds.

HP: How much discretion did the sponsor exercise?

ML: The sponsor exercised discretion, and you became a politician in the process. Let me tell you something about that incident of the first revolutionary outbreak in Newark. I knew very well that there would be objections to that going on the walls of City Hall. So in designing that particular panel, I made the British excessively hideous. I made them into real movie ghouls with exaggerated noses, with warts -- real monsters. In effect, I pointed an arrow to where the criticism should be made. And it worked. They said, "Do you have to make them this hideous? Do you think they were really this hideous? Couldn't you do something about that?" I said, "Well, I suppose I could." I went home, and off came the warts, the noses became shorter, the design passed and I was in business.

HP: You oversold.

ML: I oversold. I knew that men of that type, city officials and so forth, would not be interested in the mural in an aesthetic sense, but would scrutinize the content. I gave them something to criticize so they would feel qualified to sit in and make decisions. I put the whole thing on a platter.

It was a minor compromise because the panel remained, the incident remained. It's on the walls of City Hall now. Whereas if I had asked them in advance to let me do this, I doubt very much that they would have.

Later we did the murals for the New Jersey building at the 1939 World's Fair. I was asked to make proposals, and I hadn't any proposals. I met with representatives of the various departments -- roads, agriculture and so on -- and I immediately knew that all of them would somehow have to be depicted. And so I made a quick verbal outline of the mural, and they agreed. Sight unseen, they agreed. And we went off and did the murals.

True, they gave me only four and a half weeks to do the whole thing. This was fantastic, just fantastic. We worked night and day in a building in Newark. I had to devise new methods so as to expedite things. I finished my designs, and then had transparencies made of the sections, and these would be projected onto the wall. My assistants would be up there with pieces of charcoal tracing the whole thing in outline from section to section. That way the design was transferred onto the wall. Then I had to prepare all the colors in numbered jars, and the squares on the wall were numbered, and they simply filled in the outlined areas. Then I went up there and began to introduce some style into the thing, giving some dramatic emphasis to the figures. We had to do it that way. We had to meet the conditions. In four and half weeks we had it ready.

HP: In short, this was a whole new area for you, mural painting.

ML: Mural painting was a new area, and others also moved in. Under my supervision fifteen murals were done in New Jersey by other artists. They went into schools and libraries around the state.

HP: When you became a supervisor, did you have to handle the sponsors and find the walls?

ML: Yes. We had to talk to people, explore the field, and sell the idea of murals in places where they'd never thought of the possibility before. But it wasn't that hard. Libraries were fairly receptive if they had a wall and if some sort of subject could be agreed upon, something to do with the function of the building -- books in general, or the illustration of some particular story. There were some good muralists on the staff. Others were more or less illustrators, but we used them too. We had to use everybody.

HP: Was there any experimentation done in paints, for the murals?

ML: We didn't try a fresco because that would have been a little too involved. Nor did the opportunity present itself. But we worked with wax materials. The New York project put out a textbook on media and materials. Oil paints were simple, but then the gloss of oil paint was an obstacle. You had to get rid of that by the addition of wax, for example, which diminished it. Or you could take a plaster wall with no canvas at all and prime it with a good gesso and work with casein. That sort of approximated fresco, and it was much simpler. We had to invent techniques for certain things, like oilcloth murals and hooked rug designs and so forth. It was always a challenge, but it was fun. If there was a technical problem, we solved it.

Sometimes we would have to turn down a mural. That happened in Nutley, before I was living here. The thing that they wanted was so infantile, so ridiculous, you know? I set an artist on the job, and they began to pick on tiny infinitesimal minutiae, all kinds of things, and I saw that this mural could never be anything at all. We couldn't really take pride in it. It was just some sort of tawdry illustration they wanted, and we turned them down and made some sort of excuse about it. I said I hadn't the men to do it. I knew it was going to be one irritation after another, because in consultation over the design were some local commissioners who knew absolutely nothing and had no sympathy for what we were trying to give them.

There were some academic painters on the Project, so if some one wanted historical paintings of former judges for the courthouse, okay. We had to use everybody -- that was one of the unsung glories of the whole thing.

For example, we went out to Atlantic City to see what could be done there. We found Ezio Martinelli, who is teaching now at Sarah Lawrence, a very talented painter and subsequently a sculptor too. We put him and a couple of other artists on the Project. But we discovered during our visit that the city was interested in finding employment for, and taking off the relief rolls, a lot of women who were simply not artists at all. So we conceived of the idea of having our artists design hooked rugs. The women went about and collected rags from all over Atlantic City and brought them into a certain building that had been set aside. They began to develop these designs into some of the most beautiful hooked rugs you've ever seen, very large. They made beautiful hangings for government buildings here and there. So they got jobs, and our artists were designing, and there was a new operation going.

In Vineland, which was once a great glassblowing center, the old works were completely shut down. They were crumbling. The last piece of glass blown when we got there was about nineteen years previously. So we thought of opening this shop again. We rustled around and got funds together, repaired some of the walls, got a kiln going, got some sand -- New Jersey sand is very good for glassblowing. Then we found some of the old glassblowers on the relief rolls. We went to their houses and talked to them, and we put them on the Project. They thought it was too good to be true that they would blow glass again. They loved it.

And the excitement of having these men who had not held a punty in their hands for so long sit down and try to recapture a lost skill was a great and thrilling thing. When the plant opened and the old-timers were sitting back at their benches, they discovered their calluses were gone and they had to rebuild them. The process of shaping the glass is wonderful. There is great breath control involved. When the glass begins to form everybody stops while the man is blowing. You can't just gallop around. He must set himself and breathe properly so that there is a steady flow of air into the bottle until it is formed. Once in a while "BOOM" it would crack and everybody would shout "Hallelujah!" It's a tradition.

HP: Really? That's marvelous. That's something that doesn't exist anymore, does it?

ML: Hallelujah! They blew glass according to designs submitted by our artists, or they duplicated early American pieces, and some beautiful things were done. What happened to the glass? We simply gave it, for the cost of materials, to hospitals and libraries. There were fabulous vases on tables all over the state. Mrs. Roosevelt bought a set of it for the White House. Moholy Nagy saw some of it.

That went on for a while, and then the Corning Glass people suddenly decided that we were competing with private industry. This despite the fact that Corning was blowing laboratory glass, retorts. If they had said, "You're competing with us. We don't want you in our path. We'll employ your men," aha! that would have been something. But they made no such offer. They probably thought that these men didn't know anything about chemical glass, that they were free blowers of attractive pieces with no market value. It was completely unfair and unjust, because we were not competing with them.

Nevertheless they won out, and the men went back to the relief rolls. All it ever took was a voice raised from private industry to kill us. And it killed the Vineland project. But before it was killed, we got hold of a photographer and a script writer from the Writers' Project and sent them out to do a film.

HP: On the glassblowing project?

ML: Yes. The man at the door, leaving, going to the plant. The business of blowing glass after a long lapse, and all the drama of the kiln fire and the faces of the men. The blowing and cooling of the glass, and all the camaraderie and happiness that returned to their lives because they once more were doing what they were trained to do. This film was one of the tragedies too, because it was made and shown and again somebody -- there was always somebody out of sight somewhere -- decided that it could not be shown because it was interfering with private industry once again. We were compelled to turn it over to Washington, where it was buried in the archives, and I haven't the slightest idea what became of it.

HP: It's comparable to San Francisco, where they found a small group of Armenians and Turks who had skill in making hand tapestries.

ML: Yes? And they set up a project?

HP: Yes. Some of their tapestries are still extant out there, at least I'm told they are. These men were also on the rolls, and they had a craft that's all but gone. And a machine, however well designed, couldn't duplicate this kind of stuff in a million years. It had that tenderness, that affection, that skill that goes way back.

ML: We did also glass mosaics for school entrances. We got men who were really stonemasons, but they quickly understood the process. The designs were made by our office. We went to schools and produced color schemes that were a little more contemporary, a little more alive, a little brighter perhaps. We even tried going into the children's ward of the city hospital in Newark, where the original institutional ochre was now beige. We thought maybe we could put some murals there. We said, "Look, we'll do it just for the cost of the paint." But we were practically thrown out of the hospital. They got very concerned because somebody had a contract for painting all the hospitals, and he heard about it and arrived on the scene. He said, "We don't want any damn New York Communists in here, get out!" So we had to abandon that, and we tried something else to get around the entrenched interests. We'd make the murals on oilcloth.

HP: Aha!

ML: We'd print them, since we had the silk screen process down on Halsey Street. Our office got busy and began to design cheerful children's themes, in sections, you see?

HP: Sure.

ML: Then we'd send a man out to the hospital to look at the wall and estimate the size, and then suggest certain combinations of these silk screen designs. We simply mounted the oilcloth on the wall. If it needed a little additional ornamentation of some kind, then the artist got up there and did it -- all for the cost of oilcloth. We put murals in children's wards in some of the most miserable hospitals in the state.

One of our artists, Schneider, who had some ideas on education, went into a school and thought that the color schemes ought to be imaginative. Why do they have to be all alike? Different rooms could be done in different colors. And we did a school like that in Newark. Then he said, "What is this with the blackboards? Do they have to be black, and why do they have to be so tall that the youngsters can't reach them?" So we designed a blackboard that was sort of green, and it was way down so that there was no barrier for the children. Ideas like this were never originally in our thinking, but once they occurred we always found solutions that were valuable socially, educationally, aesthetically.

Somebody said, "How about public drinking fountains? Do you know that a little kid can't get a drink unless an adult is there to hoist him up? Let's see if we can design something where a child can get a drink even if there's no adult there." We designed it. We had made one of them at the time the Project folded. We actually cast it.

Then, of course, you know about the Index of American Design?

HP: Yes. Well, tell me about that.

ML: We had ten or twelve artists who were not themselves very creative, but who had tremendous technical skills. They were working at home, and would periodically drop in to show what they were doing. We had them scrounge around and find interesting objects. Or if somebody was in, say, a small town near Morristown he set about searching the area. If he found things he would let us know or he'd bring them to Newark and show them to us. Early designs in glass or metal, muskets and pistols, all sorts of American oddities. They rendered them on beautiful plates, and Geoffry Norman and the others took them to Washington, and some of them are in the publication. One man did a plate of a gas mask and a hand grenade. He hung them on a board and rendered them in a most incredible fashion.

Well, you say, "Boondoggling, this, that and the other." Of course there was some boondoggling, but for the ultimate good. We knew that we were doing something for the state that was without precedent, really. We were answering the needs of many areas that would never otherwise have been considered. It was a really remarkable period. Talents were developed. We took men who would not otherwise have grown into artists at all, but given this opportunity -- well, I can name them, some of the best known artists in New Jersey got their beginning on the Project.

HP: There was continuity through this.

ML: Yes, absolutely. This was the great opportunity. It was just a pity that it had to come to an end. The war came, but even then we tried to hang on. We were at the army posts when war broke out, giving painting demonstrations simply to entertain the men, or setting up classes with our instructors, hanging hooked rugs and pictures in the officers' quarters and the barracks, and what not. We started silkscreening posters for the government. Not directly for the army so much, but for civilian defense, and all sorts of civilian needs. But that was at the tail end of it, and then the whole thing finally fell. We could have gone on and on and on.

HP: From what you say, people here developed their own directions.

ML: Oh yes. But we collaborated with New York. New York advised us on many issues, especially in the beginning when we were first setting up, since they had already been in the picture for a few months. But then we rolled on our own. All these things I mentioned, glass, hooked rugs, the decorating of schools, could not have happened in New York. They could only happen in New Jersey.

HP: How did people respond to what was going on? To things like mosaics in schools?

ML: Oh, the schools were very grateful because if you know Newark and the schools there, to suddenly have somebody arrive and offer this for a pittance, for nothing, well yes, they were tremendously appreciative. Every time we did a floor or painted some walls or did a mural there were assemblies and speeches that the entire school attended. Of course it was a great event because these things were permanent.

HP: Was there a department of tours?

ML: There was one chap with us for a while as a public relations man. He would send notices to the papers about what was going on, and would arrange for groups to come and visit. Organizations would come to the plant on Halsey Street, and we would take them around and explain everything. We realized that we had to let people know what we were doing. And the response was always very good.

Teaching was an area we touched on slightly. We didn't develop it all that far because the Project didn't last long enough. We provided some teachers for a school for incapacitated children in Newark. We designed costumes for them. We were negotiating with the prisons. We had a few conferences with Lieutenant Culp at Rahway Infirmatory -- a very enlightened guy, one of the most incredible men I've ever met. He was very friendly and receptive. He wanted us to come in and teach the prisoners some of the skills, and we looked at some walls for mural decoration. Not for us to do necessarily, but to let the prisoners do under our supervision.

When we decided to set up a lithograph department, where could we go? Who had a press? We discovered Cenefelder in Brooklyn. You know the Cenefelders?

HP: Yes.

ML: The firm was originally in Paris and taught Toulouse-Lautrec how to do lithographs. Now there was a branch in Brooklyn, and they were going over to electrical processes of various kinds, so they weren't using the hand presses any more. They had piles and piles of stones, and they wanted to give them away if somebody would come and take them. They needed the room. So we picked up 80 or 100 stones and two lithograph presses. We paid $25 for the presses.

Drawing on the stone was not so complicated, but the process of printing, this was difficult. We found Ted Wahl down in south Jersey who was a marvelous lithograph printer, and we put him on the Project. He'd come in and spend a few days in the shop and print all the stones for the fellows who were ready. Beautiful stones were made. It was a great joy to see lithographs made in New Jersey, lithographs made by ourselves. The men would make the frames and cut the glass and put the whole thing up, and we'd have an exhibition ready to hit the road.

HP: How much did the work actually tour the state?

ML: We got a truck, designed the inside and fixed it up. The paintings went here and the sculpture went there. If we were not ready with an indoor exhibition, we would set up on the lawns of towns to let people see what we were doing. Many people in outlying towns had never seen anything like it before. Our truck was rolling all over the state.

You see? It's endless and we only tapped it. We never had the forces they had in New York. We didn't import artists. We got them right here. Some were pretty highly developed when we found them, and others grew with us. And every time we had one of these ideas and saw it actually work, we were in seventh heaven.

HP: There was a school in New York City, a School of Industrial Design.

ML: Yes.

HP: Was there any ramification of that here?

ML: No. We didn't touch industrial design. Who would have wanted our industrial designs? Industry? We were afraid of industry. Later on, when I became Director of the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts after the Project ended, we had an industrial design department, and did a lot of good work.

HP: I wondered if this was an offshoot of the WPA, that somehow artists could find a niche in industry. It was going on in Czechoslovakia and Germany, but I don't know whether it's a fruitful idea or not, particularly in America.

ML: Well, it could be. For example, when our glass project was going full blast, private industry was willing to buy the whole thing lock, stock and barrel. But the government wouldn't sell. They wouldn't sell anything.

HP: I guess they couldn't.

ML: With the Index of American Design, you probably know that the textile industry wanted to buy the plates.

HP: As I understand it, the intent of the Index was to make a sample of Americana as design available for industry.

ML: Yes, but was it ever turned over, or any part of it?

HP: It is available in the sense that they can send people down to where it is in the Smithsonian or National Gallery, I guess. But no one thought of publishing and sharing it. It's a damn shame because it ought to be all over the place. I can't think of a library that shouldn't have it, because it's a key to so much design in our past.

ML: There was an opera project here too.

HP: Was there?

ML: What was his name? Errol. Ralph Errol was in charge of that. It performed in schools and auditoriums all over the state. They were a marvelous company. They also had a small theater project -- nothing like New York. I saw William Bendix in a Newark WPA play, the first time I ever saw him. Then, after the Project, all of a sudden there he was big as life on the screen.

HP: Was there much relationship to the Writers' Project?

ML: Just a friendly relationship. We didn't have much to do with them except when we wanted a pamphlet or something done for us. Harold Smith, for example, came over and did the scenario for the Vineland film. Now who is Harold Smith? Well, he got an Oscar for the -- what was the name of that film? With Sidney Poitier and Edward Douglas when they were chained to each other?

HP: I know the one.

ML: Well, he was heartbroken when that film was taken from us. It was terrible. He really worked at it. Bill Cotton ran the camera, which we borrowed from somewhere.

HP: Was there any photography?

ML: We had a photographer who did some publicity shots for us. We didn't have a photographic project as such. It would have gotten there ultimately if we had lasted.

HP: How many supervisors were there in New Jersey?

ML: We had a very small crew. There were Loraine Trainer, George Kuhner and myself.

HP: What kind of person was Miss Trainer?

ML: She was very good. If she didn't have an idea herself, she was ready for anything that came along. She was friendly and very warm, a charming person with great vision. At the drop of a hat we'd hit the road because we'd hear that possibly near Atlantic City or somewhere something might be done. I think the Vineland project was her idea, and that was a beauty, a real thriller.

HP: What impresses me most is the spirit in this thing.

ML: We ran our project quite well, and it was a harmonious group. We understood that we had a common purpose. It was a very wonderful period. So few people talk about it today. Well, you don't expect them to, necessarily... A French critic who came over at that time said that the WPA was the greatest single period in American Art. We were delighted to quote him, because if an American had said it they'd accuse him of being partial.

HP: The excitement must have been not only getting ideas but making them work. At the same time providing opportunities for those who would otherwise have been just sitting...

ML: Sitting on the relief rolls, vegetating... The artists themselves had to learn more than their craft. They had to learn certain responsibilities. For example, in the hooked rug project I came back to Newark to talk to some of the artists about it. I said, "Look, here is a group of women who have manual skills. They can stitch and sew and they can be used. It's up to you fellows to give us some good designs." They didn't agree with that at all. This was infringing on the inner sanctum of their lives, even though they knew they themselves were part of a national relief measure, and were no different from these women. Yet they resisted and rebelled. I remember after I left them hearing a jar of brushes come hurtling at the door -- at my head, only the door was closed. But they produced the designs anyway, and when they saw the rugs they understood, and appreciated what had happened, and were very pleased.

HP: They could begin to think...

ML: They could pass out of their little isolated selves, isolated by society itself. As artists they had never had an opportunity to feel part of the community. This gave them a chance to make a contribution, and they did, they did. And of course friendships were made among the artists that remained through the years.

HP: Tell me this. What was the range in age of people as you remember them? Did they go the whole spectrum, or was this basically a youthful movement?

ML: It was basically youthful, although we had some older painters. Caparelli, for example, was in his sixties when we put him on. There were several others who had been sort of conventional painters. Foruccio, from over in Paterson, a church sculptor who had done a few public monuments, was on the Project. We lent these men a helping hand when they badly needed it, perhaps even more so than the younger guys. A young fellow has to live too. But for these old academic craftsmen, there was no opportunity at all. The door was being slammed not only on their work but on their very lives when we stepped in. It was a great ray of hope for them to return to the easel or the bench or whatever. But we had mostly young people on the Project. Young painters, young draftsmen, young designers.

It was wonderful what camaraderie grew out of that. I sat through uproarious evenings until dawn with some of the guys, generating our own entertainment, exchanging ideas, singing songs, and drinking what? Tea! Tea, and if were really flush we had lox and bagels or cream cheese on the table. There was no money to be spent, so we didn't worry about it. We had a wonderful time.

HP: I know what you mean. I was a kid in those days. We had one baseball. It was no longer recognizable as such, it had been taped so much. The rule was if you hit the damn thing over the fence you were out, 'cause you might lose it. Camaraderie is certainly not symptomatic of our current spirit, but in those days it was.

ML: This camaraderie existed not only among the artists, but also in our sympathizers -- doctors and lawyers and people like that who were our friends, and whose houses were open to us. They were a great source of moral support through it all. Such wonderful evenings we had with some of these people. There were also men fairly high up in the social strata in the state who were very strong with us. Arthur Egner, for example. Did you ever hear of him?

HP: Egner, President...

ML: President of the Newark Museum and senior partner of Egner-MacArthur-English, a big law firm. Arthur Egner was one of those really incredible men who come along too infrequently. He would drop everything and come with us on a speaking tour for the Project. His office was full of paintings, drawings and sculpture. He was practically buried under them. He was a highly influential friend. You could always turn to him if you needed protection from officialdom up on top.

We had people come in who harbored, secretly perhaps, a desire to become artists. For example, one day a little guy with a hat pulled down over one eye came in, as nattily dressed as he could be at this time, but with the manner of a neighborhood tough. His name was Merrigan. He looked around and we wondered what he was doing there. He wouldn't talk to us. I think it was George Kuhner, Loraine Trainer's assistant, who took him aside and asked him what he wanted. He finally admitted that he did a little painting, and perhaps we'd like to see it. Well, he painted the streets, and he painted them with a magnificent kind of forceful abandon. It had an authenticity, a power about it. We put him on the Project, and he painted some wonderful pictures for us. The Newark Museum has one of two of them in their collection. But he swore us to silence. He never wanted anybody in his neighborhood to know that he was a painter because he'd lose respect, lose face.

HP: "What will they say back home?"

ML: You can imagine Atlantic City talking about these women who suddenly found themselves on an art project, of all things, making hooked rugs for the government and the army.

HP: Were people who couldn't qualify desperate to be part of it?

ML: I'll tell you something. Some artists tried to get on the Project even though they could never pass the means test. Well-to-do people tried to get their sons and daughters on the Project. In one instance someone even tried to bribe me.

HP: What sort of press did you receive? Anything like the miserable Daily Mirror, endlessly castigating the boondoggling?

ML: The New Jersey press was on the whole quite friendly. When I submitted my designs for the decorations at Newark City Hall, the Star-Ledger and Newark News were there. They reproduced the designs in the papers. When the mural was finished they gave it a good magazine story. The Bell Telephone Company took one of the panels and put it in their monthly bulletin and sent out 500,000 of them across the state.

HP: Well heck, is there anything of a non-positive nature? Was there any sourness at all? You don't describe any.

ML: As I said, when I tried to sell the artists on the idea of designing hooked rugs there was resentment. I had to use a little of my official strong-arm pressure to compel them to do it. There were little tight passages like that on occasion, yes. There was a certain amount of jealousy for the fact that I was a supervisor and some people felt that I wasn't...

HP: What's he doing there instead of me?

ML: That's right. Which is par for the course.

HP: And this would be related in part to the relief rolls and who was on them. A certain percentage of supervisory personnel did not have to be employed from the rolls.

ML: Yes, that's correct. The supervisory personnel did not have to pass the means test -- although it happened I came up that way. But as a supervisor there were times when I was called upon to indicate who was to be laid off.

HP: That's a hard job.

ML: Oh brother, this was really tough, really tough, because I didn't want to lay off anybody. Some of them were not great contributors, but I felt that even if they had a little contribution to make they were entitled to be on the Project. They were not to be cast back onto relief, and this was very difficult, the business of choosing. It hung over our heads all the time, this ax. Every three months or so they said, "Got to reduce the forces -- you, ten percent will have to be lopped off." So we'd be sitting in front of the rolls, studying them to see who could be killed. Oh boy.

HP: Yes, that's not easy, is it? Because since it opened up the world for these people, to turn it off might have a reverse effect, and in turn create bitterness.

ML: It became subjective, and those fellows who were lopped off felt that they had been betrayed.

HP: "Look, my friend's become a louse."

ML: All of a sudden you're a louse. We always had politicians breathing down our necks, particularly over the issue of regional governance. The local crop of politicians wanted state control because a sizeable amount of money was involved, and men could be put on the payroll for three months and fired, and then another batch could be put on for the next three months. Four times a year they could put on different groups of men and gain the votes of all of them, you see. So finally came the day when regional control was abandoned, and it was handed over to the state, and that's when the Project vanished. And the day it vanished, I can tell you about that, too. Suddenly the politicians walked in, just like in a B movie. They walked across the room, plunked down in chairs, put their feet up on the table, looked at Loraine Trainer and said, "Who are you?" She was fired that afternoon.

HP: I remember it was about then that Summerville appeared on the scene. Colonel Summerville was a military man with a job to do, not a particularly lovely human being. No social views at all, an efficiency expert, less of a table companion than an ant, though more dressy. He announced big cutbacks, a percentage of people to be separated from the force arbitrarily. He conveyed a sort of dehumanized, machinelike approach. Here you were in an Elysian field, the modern artist's opportunity, and then you had to confront Colonel Summerville. Do you remember anything about him?

ML: Yes. I remember Summerville vaguely. He was a dread word to be whispered in the offices.

HP: How much effect did the difficulties that were going on in New York City have in New Jersey?

ML: What sort of difficulties do you mean?

HP: Well, there were the art teachers that had, so far as I can tell, the first sit-in demonstration in Summerville's office. Then the succession of organizations, from the John Reed Club to the Artists' Union, and then the Artists' Congress. It seemed that artists made good copy. When they marched on City Hall it was something that had to be covered. Gorky carrying a huge sign: this was news. Or the artists' early disinclination to entertain any illusions about Mussolini and Hitler. There was Spain, The Abraham Lincoln Brigade. It was a hell of an exciting period, but a depressing period as well.

ML: Yes, it was a turbulent time. I was a member of the Artists' Congress. A few other New Jersey artists were members, and we'd occasionally go to meetings. We knew about New York and the picket lines. Our picket lines were not that frequent. There was a group in Jersey called the Artists' Alliance or something. They wanted artists to get organized. Some joined it and there were a few picket lines at the official headquarters of the Project at 1060 Broad Street. I myself would go out on a picket line once in a while. This was part of the whole thing. You had to more or less defend your position. I remember going to New York and seeing a huge picket line, and who was marching up and down but Maxwell Bodenheim! People like that, poets, appeared from nowhere. Eveybody had the same nothing, economically.

We had the FBI arrive and ask, "Who in your opinion are the Communists out there on the floor?"

HP: Oh for God's sake.

ML: I was supposed to point out the Communists. Wild. How the hell was I supposed to know? "Who in your opinion?" That FBI question. "In your opinion when you went around to visit these artists' studios, did you ever see, for example, a portrait of Stalin on the wall?" I said, "Look, if you were a Communist would you have a portrait of Stalin on your wall for everybody to see?"

HP: Yes, it got silly. But this reflected the difficulties which the central office was confronting from Congress. Congress kept them on a short leash, fundwise, and the Dies Committee was running hot. They could take the Writers' Project and pillory it, as they did with Henry Alsberg just for writing a letter to the New Republic. He had an idea late one night that they ought to introduce democracy into prisons, let the prisoners run the place. A marvelous idea for one o'clock in the morning, that you'd scribble down without ever dreaming that some astute researcher for the Congressional Appropriations Committee would suddenly confront you with it. Prisoners are supposed to be incarcerated, period. Or take the imaginative Hallie Flannagan and her paper "One Third of the Nation." Suddenly she was called on the carpet. Why? Because she quoted some senators, but she quoted them correctly.

ML: A fatal error.

HP: She could have changed the name, maybe a comma here or a word there, but no. Hallie Flannagan had guts. It meant, in the last analysis, that they cut off funds.

ML: Oh sure, I remember an Artists' Congress meeting in New York. The speaker of the evening was Meyer Schapiro. There was some hot discussion about Federal art patronage, and voices were raised, including mine. Wouldn't you know that the thing was reported in the Times and picked up in the Newark News? I found it on my desk in the morning, and there it was in black and white. I don't remember what it was that I said, but I was required to explain it. It was a very leftist position of some kind. It was tough for me because I felt strongly about Federal patronage for the arts, and still do.

And you know what followed? The dumping of paintings in the Canal Street warehouse, just dumping them and finally selling them for what? A dollar apiece? Incidently, why would they give them to a commercial junk man? They never permitted us to sell anything commercially.

HP: By this time precedents had been created. Declare a surplus and send it for scrapping.

ML: Scrap, yes. Some of the fellows ran over there and started buying their pictures back for a dollar, two dollars, five dollars tops. Evergood bought back some of his own pictures for five dollars.

HP: He didn't!

ML: Sure. That's one case I heard about, but there was another aspect to it. You probably heard of Gorky's murals at the Newark Airport vanishing?

HP: Yes.

ML: Well, they vanished! The press called me up and asked if I knew what happened. I hadn't the slightest idea because nobody told me they were going to tear them down. They had to remodel the airport, and there were these murals in the way. They had to take them down and they dumped them somewhere, and they vanished. I know closer to home how this works. My mural on the history of New Jersey also vanished.

HP: Just like that?

ML: I know what happened, but nobody warned me about it. They decided to convert that huge dining room into wards. So here was this mural the whole length of it, and it had to come down. They started removing it, but we did it very well. We mounted it with leading and spar varnish and it was on like iron. So they began to tear it and rip it and they finally said, "Listen, $20 per day men, we can't waste time, let's get this thing down." So they ripped it all off, dumped it. About a year and a half later I had occasion to call the sanitorium and ask them whether they had photographs of it or something, and they told me it wasn't there any more. So what are you supposed to say? "Don't take it down. Do not remodel this dining room into wards. Do not remodel the airport?" That's ridiculous.

Who was there to protest to? All I could say was, "Why the hell didn't you call me up? Why didn't you ask me how to take the thing down?" Even just to roll it up and put it away somewhere, so it would still exist. Conceivably in time we might have found a new wall for it. But nobody asked me anything. I would have thought of some solution. I would have asked somebody how to soften the varnish, maybe, and let it come down easily. You see, art is not quite war surplus. A gun that is no longer up to specifications gets dumped, and you design another one. But art is not a gun. It is something else.

You'd be surprised at some of the ideas I had when I saw that the Project was doomed. Together with Bill Cotton the photographer and Harold Smith who did that script in Vineland, I thought that we ought to prepare for the end. What should we do? Where could we go? We considered all possible sources of patronage, and decided that the only one still untapped was organized labor. So I said, "We have the United Mine Workers' office in Newark." I don't know what they were doing in Newark, but there they were. We went over and said, "Look, we want to paint a mural for your office. We want this as a trial run, and we want to make a film of the whole business. Some of your men can assist on this project. We'll take mining for the theme, and you'll get you a set of murals for your headquarters." He said, "What if we don't have our headquarters here a year from now?" We said, "We'll design them so they're portable. You can take them wherever you go."

I wanted the Guggenheim Foundation to pick up the tab just for the initial project, and to make the film and then show it to union people across the country. I figured that at that time there were 10 million organized workers in the United States, and if each one once a year would drop a dime into a hat, a million dollars could be raised. Just once a year, a dime. We would have a Federal program sponsored by labor and not only would it pick up where the WPA left off, but it would probably cure a good many of the aesthetic and technical ills of the art world as a whole. Geoffry Norman was one of the signers, and Arthur Egner. But nothing ever came of it.

About two years ago, Jim Kearns, one of the artists here, wanted me to write this up again. I said, "The ante will have to go up to the cost of a pack of cigarettes. Each union member in the United States will have to give a quarter, let's say." Two and half million or even more, since there are more than ten million organized workers now. Is this too much to ask? I went to New York to the Garment Workers' Union on 16th Street to talk to them about it and try to get their support. They almost threw me out of the office. They said, "What are you talking about? We've got strikes." "You always have strikes," I said.

It is later than we think. Somebody has got to begin to move in a big way. We can't go on any longer. The opponents of Federal patronage say that security becomes death. Well I don't know. Let's try it and see. In Greece and Rome where there was state patronage and they built their temples and their statues, but there was a certain quiescence about the arts. A certain elegance ensued, and then it began to topple, until the Laocoon group and that sort of thing began to indicate instability and torment. So all right, if we were guaranteed a livelihood, and we knew that tomorrow was provided for, that our children would be educated and so on, conceivably a classical period might ensue. But nothing is forever.

At the UNESCO conference in New York two or three years ago, 54 nations were represented. Of those 54, only one did not sponsor its art: the United States. We were the hosts. President Kennedy was sympathetic and sent greetings, but all he did was appoint a research body.

HP: Yes, more names. "Don't commit yourself, committee yourself."

ML: If they only realized what the country would gain if a few million dollars a year were set aside, and 200 of the leading American artists were put on the payroll. They could either have them paint murals or they could pick up the best easelwork and put it into government collections or give it to libraries or other institutions. How much longer are we going to wait?

When I was traveling around on the Chaloner, I wound up in Cassis on the Mediterranean a couple of times. I met Lucien and Atti Gugerescu, Romanian painters. What were they doing there? Who was paying for them? The Romanian government was. Lucien said there were about two dozen of them. Wherever they wanted to go, anywhere in Europe, the Romanian government picked up the tab. At the end of the year they gave them a big exhibition, buying about 50% of the work, with the rest bought by trade unions. In Romania, mind you. We could buy and sell Romania twice a week.

HP: Congress looks upon the arts as unsafe and unstable. They don't seem to understand the nature of aesthetic experience and the human need for it.

ML: But there are a few, Congressman Frank Thompson for example. And Senator Harrison Williams, who hasn't been that active in promoting Federal support of the arts, came to Artists' Equity here in New Jersey and said, "Look, can you give me a few pictures to hang in my office?" Now in the event his vote were needed for this sort of thing, we'd have it. But these are little things. And not fast enough.

Wasn't it strange to see Robert Frost at the Inaugural? We looked at each other in amazement. Ye Gods, is this the United States? A poet? A poet at the Inaugural? It gave us hope.

HP: But Jesus, all you need is to have somebody rise on the House or Senate floor and raise questions about some painting. Look at Eisenhower and what he did to the Moscow show, although he later had to eat his own words. And you can't make a representative selection of the various schools. Maybe it's because human experience is becoming so fragmented, nobody can see it totally any more, and whatever you do see is only a fraction of the total picture. It is difficult to get across to a Congressman or Senator what meaning there is in modern art, since it is fragmentary.

ML: Is there any other way of approaching Congress? For example, has anyone thought of an educational program, having films and lecturers and getting Senators and Congressmen to attend? Occasionally you hear of some little thing happening. One of our printmakers here, John Ross, President of the American Society of Graphic Arts, was one of the jury that chose Stewart Davis' design for the fine arts stamp. And I discovered in reading his biography that he had been sent by the State Department to tour Europe with a graphics show.

HP: It's worth a thousand words, as they say.

ML: Yes. We have a national tendency to disregard people's intuition. Guys come in here to fix the skylight. I have always had this experience with craftsmen, because they see painting as a craft, and they immediately respond. In the WPA we found a great deal of this. Look at the men who laid the mosaic floors. They were stonemasons, but with what care they assembled the little chips, following the design. It was wonderful to see. I'm an optimist. I get impatient with the passage of time, but I know that if the thing came to be, people would respond. There are sixty or more adult schools in the state. Each one has an art class, two art classes, and they never have any trouble filling them up.

HP: It may sound un-Christian, but I suspect you can divide people into a group that graze like cows and a restless, itchy-footed group that somehow get the hell out of the pasture and do something else. I do think there is an eagerness for art, but it's in competition with a lot of things like that square box that rules our roost.

When I talked to Stewart Davis, by the way, he had a television set fixed so the picture spun. He wasn't watching anything particular and the sound wasn't on. A jazz program was playing on a radio wired with 1890 watts. He had to have TV, though, and it was going all the time.

So I gather that the WPA left deep marks on you that still direct your thinking.

ML: Oh yes. It was a time of great social awareness. We knew that the country was in a dump. We were very insecure. We didn't know whether we would actually come out of the Depression, or what would happen to us when the Project ended. We knew it wasn't forever. We got a great deal of understanding of ourselves in relation to our times, to each other, to our creativity. How little was actually guaranteed for us, how very little. A certain amount of bitterness crept in when people started getting fired. But camaraderie is what? A mutuality, so that even the woes and sorrows made for camaraderie. We had that.

As for the business of art as a social measure, it brought an obligation to say something within the work about what I felt, about myself, my fellow man, about the times, the protest. Given the tools, I just don't want to play tiddly-winks with them. I want to use them for something. Of course, now they refer this back to the thirties, and changes have taken place and so on. Maybe photography has taken over some of that area so we don't have to work in a strictly representational way any longer. We can operate on a slightly more exalted level. But neither I nor the other fellows on the Project have ever quite lost the belief in art as an essential part of their lives and of the life of the nation. The sooner we understand this the better. We've been delaying far too long. We can't simply be materialistic, physically consuming beings. What are we? Worms that come in here and go out there? Is this all?

The country itself is waiting for some sort of spiritual motivation. This is one of the maladies of our times. More Frigidaires, more cars, three cars in a two-car garage. You can't stuff it in any more.

So I don't know what I remembered of the WPA that will be of any value to you.

HP: A great deal, I think, because this is an area unlike New York, unlike San Francisco, unlike Los Angeles, and it would otherwise have remained unrepresented. If I had a theme I wanted to develop, it's the excitement in allowing local discretion. Where you don't administer creativity into nothingness, but give it an opportunity to take its own course. How it has to make its own way.

ML: It's quite true. And we made our way, yes. People still refer to it, you know, as a great period. We got a little Messianic on the Project, those of us who helped formulate it and saw its results. We've never stopped being missionaries. We think that this must return in a greater and more expansive arc. We've got to work for it. It isn't for me alone. Another few years and I'm gone. But the country needs it. This is something that we learned on the Project. Yes, we remember that.

(from the Archives of American Art oral history archives)

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