Crash to Creativity: The New Deal in Vermont

Crash to Creativity: The New Deal in Vermont

Crash to Creativity: The New Deal in Vermont

Detail, ‘Charley Smith and His Barn,’ circa 1939, by Francis Colburn

Detail, ‘Charley Smith and His Barn,’ circa 1939, by Francis Colburn

The Stock Market Crash of 1929 took its toll on the country in the early 1930s. It has often been said that the Depression didn’t have much impact in Vermont – it had always been a hard-scrabble place, but many saw their lives crumble before them. However, 1934 to 1944 was also a time of immense creativity and innovation in the Green Mountain State. Artists, architects, writers, construction workers and civil employees, whose work was funded through Federal New Deal programs, helped to document the state’s history, record the conditions of contemporary life during the Depression and recovery, and build infrastructure that continues to benefit us today.

On view at the Bennington Museum through November 4, ‘Crash to Creativity: The New Deal in Vermont’ sheds light on the role of many government-sponsored projects, featuring photography, paintings, prints of post office murals and architectural drafts. Powerful examples of Regionalist and Social Realist paintings include Francis Colburn’s ‘Charley Smith and His Barn,’ shown above. Also on view is furniture from Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) cabins, archival documentation of New Deal projects such as letters, as well as transcriptions of audio recordings of Vermonters created by the Federal Writers Project.

The exhibition examines three thematic topics: Preserving the Past, Inventing the Present and Building the Future. Vermont’s culture has long been shaped by an interdependent relationship between traditional values and progressive ideals, and the effects of the Depression opened Vermont to many aspects of Roosevelt’s liberal New Deal. Many projects’helped to solidify stories that had been told and retold, passed down by one generation of Vermonters to the next, such as the Battle of Bennington and the Green Mountain Boys. Bennington Museum collaborated with a handful of artists through the state’s Federal Art Project to create large-scale murals and easel paintings documenting local historical events and people of particular note. “The creative output of the New Deal in Vermont helped to crystalize the traditional marketing and tourist image of Vermont as a picturesque, old-time   New England,” states Jamie Franklin, Museum executive director. This idealized image of Vermont, was and continues to be used by the state’s tourist marketing programs to the present day

However, some artists produced bodies of work notable for their powerful sense of place and willingness to address important, sometimes difficult, social issues, directly tackleing many of the dire economic, political, and social problems facing Vermonters during the Depression. The Federal Writer’s Project is best remembered for the American Guide Series.’Every major city and town in all 48 states in the union, plus Alaska and Puerto Rico, was documented, and included essays on history and culture, descriptions of its major cities, automobile tours of important attractions and photographs. In addition, authors conducted extensive interviews with locals to draft narrative accounts, and were largely unpublished. Excerpts telling about various aspects of life in Vermont are also included in a handful of labels throughout the exhibition, explained Franklin.

The Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC was created in 1933.’Thousands of young men were recruited to work planting forests and creating parks, building roads and dams, and pursuing other conservation activities. Vermont had one of the earliest and most productive CCC projects in the country. Most of the buildings that were built for the state park system with CCC labor were rustic structures utilizing readily accessible local materials, including rough-hewn logs and stone. The CCC also had a significant role in the birth and early development of Vermont’s ski industry. On view in ‘Crash to Creativity’ are architectural renderings and early photos.

Bennington Museum is located at 75 Main Street/Route 9, Bennington. Visit benningtonmuseum.org or call 802-447-1571 for more information.

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