1934 William Arthur Cooper Born: Hillsboro, North Carolina 1895 Died: St. Louis, Missouri, 1974 oil on canvas 24 1/8 x 29 7/8 in. (61.3 x 75.9 cm) Smithsonian American Art Museum Transfer from the U.S. Department of Labor 1964.1.154 Not currently on view
This painting of a Tennessee sawmill processing raw tree trunks looks like a straightforward image of a thriving southern industry. But the beginning of the Great Depression had curtailed American building. Starting in 1929, mills like this one had been closed. For three years, "there was no hard-wood industry." By January 1933, the American forest industries that supplied boards for construction were in a crisis, termed "one of the pressing national problems of the day." Finally, as Federal construction projects began around the country in the spring and summer of 1933, the hardwood industry and other suppliers began to recover.
Logging crews returned to southern forests and logs poured into reopened saw mills like the one portrayed by William A. Cooper. Cooper, an African American minister who used art to explore the character and situation of his race, specialized in portraits. While this painting stresses not people but machinery such as the cranes and chute that take lumber into the sawmill, it might easily escape our notice that many of the workers in mills like this one were black. The white plumes from steam-driven band saws and the piles of logs ready for sawing were welcome sights for Cooper's southern African American community and their white colleagues.
1934: A New Deal for Artists exhibition label
Architecture - industry - mill
Occupation - industry - lumber
New Deal - Public Works of Art Project - Tennessee
paint - oil
fabric - canvas