THERE WERE MANY challenges to be faced in New Hampshire during the Great Depression. But all was not doom and gloom. For one thing, this era proved to be a boon for the visual arts in the state, due in large part to the availability of funding and professional guidance provided through certain federal programs.
A major source of employment and inspiration for the state’s artists was the Federal Art Project (FAP) of the WPA (Works Progress Administration). According to a WPA report for New Hampshire from July 1939, the FAP’s purpose was to help “needy and unemployed artists — painters, sculptors, graphic artists, craftsmen — art teachers, art lecturers, museum workers and photographers, who are qualified by training and experience to perform a function in the field of art activity.”
In New Hampshire, FAP employees produced paintings, prints, botanical research plates, photographs, posters, scene paintings (for stage productions), murals, and sculpture — all to benefit the public. FAP exhibitions were set up in libraries, high schools, and other public facilities throughout the state. Local organizations and municipal governments partnered with the FAP on many of the projects.
The state supervisor of the New Hampshire FAP was Omer T. Lassonde, an accomplished painter who lived in Manchester and Boscawen. Lassonde administered the program effectively, while encouraging his fellow artists to do their best work. Among the major accomplishments of the state’s FAP was the completion of the Brig. Gen. Casimir Pulaski monument in Manchester in 1938, which was designed by local sculptor Lucien Hippolyte Gosselin. Another important project was the creation of murals for the Hamilton Smith Library at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.
Three talented artists were hired to carry out the UNH mural project, which was completed in 1940: Gladys Brannigan of Portsmouth, Arthur L. Esner of Newmarket, and George Lloyd of Barrington. Working in her studio in Portsmouth, Brannigan painted 10 mural panels in oil paint on canvas, depicting various facets of the news industry. These were installed on the walls of the library’s Newspaper Room.
For his mural in the Reserve Room, Lloyd represented “Farming in New Hampshire.” His composition included images of the four seasons, and scenes symbolic of four essential aspects of a farming community: the home, the town meeting, the school, and the church. For a Reference Room wall Esner painted images illustrating “Industry in New Hampshire.” In his mural Esner highlighted shoe and textile manufacturing; recreation; and logging. He also touched upon agriculture, overlapping somewhat in this theme with Lloyd’s effort. Both Lloyd and Esner painted directly onto the walls with egg tempera.
After the Dimond Library was built in 1958 the former library building was remodeled for classroom and office use. The Brannigan mural panels were removed from the building and stored for possible reuse, but they subsequently disappeared. The Lloyd mural remained on display through the years, though its colors faded somewhat. The Esner mural was boarded up in the 1960s when a suspended ceiling was installed. When the covering was removed in recent months, it was discovered that the mural had sustained moisture damage. Both the “Agriculture” and the “Industry” murals were extensively restored in 2017, and can now be viewed in their original glory in Hamilton Smith Hall.
During the Great Depression the U.S. Treasury Department accelerated its program of building new post offices to provide much-needed employment. It focused its efforts to a great extent on towns and small cities to help develop attractive and functional local business centers. At least 13 new post offices were built in New Hampshire during this time, and at least five of these projects included a unique mural for a wall in a public area.
These murals, which show different features of New Hampshire life, still exist in post offices in Lebanon, Milford, Peterborough, Plymouth, and Wolfeboro. The 1930s post office in Derry was adorned with a plaster bas-relief entitled “Town of Derry.” After the building was demolished in 2002, the artwork was re-installed in a hallway in Pinkerton Academy in Derry. Another federal project, the 1941 Forestry Building in Laconia (now Lakes Region Community Services), still includes the two beautiful murals commissioned for the building, “Pulpwood Logging” and “Wildlife in White Mountains.”
Next week: New Deal music and theatre programs in New Hampshire.