AN ARTISTIC BLEND: FRANK AND MARTHA ANDERSON
Williams, Lynn Barstis
THE ANDERSONS HAD A LASTING IMPACT ON THE SOUTH’S ARTISTIC COMMUNITY, CHALLENGING THE REGION TO IMPROVE THE QUALITY OF ITS ART EDUCATION AND PRODUCTION.
ARCHITECT FRANK HARTLEY ANDERSON came to Alabama from Boston to help design the city of Fairfield. Frank quickly laid roots in the South; he found a wife and creative partner in native Georgian, Martha Fannin Fort. The two would go on to pool their talents, together creating both art and artistic communities, and furthering the South’s cultural development in the process. The couple collaborated so fully in their endeavors that, even today, it is not entirely clear what aspects of their work can be attributed to Frank and what aspects to Martha.
BORN IN BOSTON IN 1891, Frank studied art and architecture at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Cleveland School of Art, and Harvard University. He received his training as a landscape architect in Massachusetts with two leaders in the field: Warren Henry Manning, a trainee of Frederick Law Olmstead, and Henry Vincent Hubbard, who studied under Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. Frank began planning on the city of Fairfield (then called Corey) around 1909, on the staff of George H. Miller. Frank later worked with Warren H. Manning on Manning’s commission to develop a city plan for Birmingham. Frank successfully convinced Birmingham city fathers to develop the present Linn Park as a civic center.
Around the end of World War I, Frank began working as a landscape architect alongside William Warren (one of the founders of the prominent Birmingham firm of Warren, Knight, and Davis, which opened in 1921) to develop conceptual drawings for the civic center. Their plan was published in the book Warren H. Manning’s City Plan of Birmingham, which Frank co-authored with Manning and published by subscription in 1919. Anderson used this book to propose that Linn Park become a WWI memorial, and this dream became reality. The memorial was dedicated on Armistice Day in 1923 from the Greek citizens to Birmingham American Legion Postal. Although the entire Anderson, Warren, and Knight civic center proposal was not adopted, six public buildings were built around the square over the next three decades, following the essence of their vision.
By 1918 Frank had established himself as a full-rime resident of Birmingham and as an independent architect specializing in residential housing. In 1923 one of Andersen’s designs, a house on Hanover Circle, was featured in the Birmingham Noes Sunday section.
That same year, Frank married Martha Fannin Fort. Born in Macon, Georgia, in 1885, Martha attended Piedmont College and later the Boston Museum School. She strengthened this education with additional artistic training, spending a year at both the Academic Cororossi in Paris and the An Students League in New York. In 1918 she founded the art program at the University of Alabama and served as its first director. Until her marriage to Frank, she was the university’s sole art instructor. When she moved to Birmingham to live with her husband, she founded the Extension Division Art Department through the University of Alabama. Martha used this program to train Birmingham public school art teachers, and Frank assisted her in this capacity.
Within the marriage, Martha Fort Anderson’s artistic career continued to flourish. In addition to collaborating with her husband, she worked as an illustrator for Dodd Mead books and also painted portraits. Her biography in the 1936-7 Who’s Who in America notes various portrait commissions, including Dr. Eugene Alien Smith of the University of Alabama, Brigadier General J. C. Parsons of the First National Bank in Birmingham, as well as clergymen in Atlanta. Her portrait of Reverend Henry Judah Mikell, Bishop of Atlanta from 1917 to 1942, hangs today at the Cathedral of Saint Philip in Atlanta. The Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia owns a figure study that evokes her rural North Georgia homeland.
The couple demonstrated a flair for innovation in all aspects of their lives, and the house in Birmingham that Frank Anderson designed for them after their marriage was no exception. In a tiny residential lot on a steep hillside at 2112 11th Court South, Frank and Martha began their family (two daughters) and their artistic journey together. The house drew attention from the local press for its distinctive Mediterranean style, meriting an article in Architectural Forum in 1926. The three-story structure provided studio space for Martha on the top floor, office and workshop room for Frank on the first floor, and living quarters in between.
An article about the house in the 1934 Birmingham Post noted that Frank Anderson’s inventions made it one of the most modern residences in Birmingham. He devised his own air-conditioning system by placing hollow tiles in reinforced concrete walls to retain cool air, and connected their electric range to Birmingham power, the first in the city to do so. Anderson also installed the first electric dishwasher south of the Ohio River.
Yet the Andersons’ most extensive contribution in Alabama was to the field of art. By 1930 Frank had an art gallery on the first floor of their home, Anderson Galleries, where he exhibited prints. Fond of using wood as a medium, Frank began to gain recognition for his woodcuts and wood engravings. An article in Art Digest reported on an exhibition at Anderson Galleries that featured Anderson’s woodcuts, including a piece called St. Louis Blues (sometimes tided Humoresque), alongside both contemporary and earlier prints from other artists.
A two-page spread in a 1932 issue of American Architect featured one of his relief prints, Negro Dray Stand on a Rainy Winter Day, which it described as depicting “dilapidated wagons, skinny horses, mules and decrepit Negroes awaiting a cartage job which may represent a whole days earnings.” The caption suggests unemployment and hardship brought on by the Great Depression, probably in Birmingham, although such a specific interpretation is not clearly evident from the print’s generalized imagery.
As the Depression hit Birmingham’s industrial base, capital for new construction became scarce. This meant little work for architects. In 1934 Frank Anderson joined other Alabama artists signing up with the first New Deal Art Program, the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), which offered a white-collar wage of forty-five dollars per month. The program was to supply art for public buildings while offering financial relief to artists. During this period, Frank made a total of twenty-three woodcuts that were presented to public schools. Many illustrate events from American history. The pieces Due West and Pioneer Wheelwright, part of a collection of Frank’s woodcuts in the Birmingham Public Library, are probably from this period. Others portray scenes of local Alabama, often human figures engaged in communal activities. Winter in the Mountains, also part of the Birmingham Public Library collection, shows a family sitting around a fire.
For many of these relief prints, Martha should be recognized as the true creator. The couple likely had their own version of a traditional printmaking practice whereby an artist sketches the composition, and a craftsman carves and prints the impression. According to one of the Anderson daughters, Martha Prince, Martha sketched many of the designs, scenes, or figures for prints that her husband then fashioned.
Frank began to enter some of these prints in national competitions. Most selections depicted scenes of African American life. When their woodcut Negro Preachin’ won first prize out of over a hundred prints in an exhibit of American Block Prints hosted by the Wichita An Association, Frank received a celebratory article in the Birmingham Past. The article noted that Frank traveled to various sites in the city to visually record southern folk scenes that many native southern artists tended to neglect. Whether Martha Anderson collaborated in designing this particular print is not known.
Scholars have since noted that many artists from the urban Northeast used southern folkways as a subject during this period. Artists frequently associated African Americans with traditional folk culture in the South and focused on their work and leisure activities. During the 1930s, many white artists chose to depict African Americans in scenes of communal worship, attending church services or outdoor baptisms. While it was popular to portray the participants of these services as highly spirited or ecstatic, the Andersons’ scenes featured poised and calm worshippers. Whether they personally witnessed African American religious services to sketch is uncertain, but it was common for artists to do so.
In March of 1935, the couple organized an exhibit at the Birmingham Public Library, featuring their own work as well as the work of their daughter and ten of their pupils. This garnered the Andersons another round of publicity in the local press. An article in the Birmingham Post explained the genesis of some of the print scenes. It noted that, as models for their work, the Andersons used their cook Emma and hired men from the Transient Bureau, a New Deal Relief Agency.
The article focused on one wood engraving in particular, Church Supper, for which Emma supplied three female poses in a group portrait. These female figures surround a male figure profiled in the foreground. The article explained that Frank had a figure sketched in this area, but Martha arrived home with a sketch she had made of a black preacher on the streetcar. As hers was a better face and rendition of the subject, it became the central subject of the print. The preacher on the street-car had no idea he served as a model.
The Andersons made yet another cultural contribution to the city of Birmingham through public murals funded by New Deal art programs. When the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was established in 1935, both of the Andersons signed up. They decided to collaborate on a series of large canvas paintings, murals that depicted the early explorers arriving in America, for the library of Lakeview School The couple began work on the series in October 1935, and by November 1936 had the murals ready to display in their home for the local press. According to an article in the Birmingfiam Noes, they did a great deal of historical research for the series, which depicts the landings of Columbus, the Cabots, and the Vikings, as well as the Mayan temple Tikal and Columbus’s return to Palos. The school has since become the offices and studios of Martin Advertising, but the murals remain on display in the halls of the building.
The Andersons’ next New Deal Art project was commissioned through the U.S. Treasury Department, which supplied murals for new post offices. On the basis of their submissions for other murals, the Andersons were commissioned to paint a mural for the Fairfield Post Office, which they completed in 1938. Fairfield’s postmaster had the choice of having either postal activities or the story of steel depicted. He chose the latter.
How the Andersons coordinated such joint painting projects is not known. Some research indicates that Frank did most of the historical research while Martha did the majority of the painting. Either way, the Andersons prepared a master drawing for the new mural by spending many hours in the mines and steel mills sketching in graphite, pastels, and oil. A plaque placed beside the mural, Spirit of Steel, notes that the scene depicts the entire steel manufacturing process, from the mining of coal and ore to the making of steel in open-hearth furnaces, to the finished steel shaft. Within the painted segments, the Andersons emphasize human work above the mechanical. The scale of figures in relation to the equipment makes them appear large, strong, and able for the tasks required, an optimistic view that many felt the government-sponsored mural projects solicited.
In addition to their other projects, in 1935 the Andersons initiated what may be their most significant cultural contribution to the South. They organized the Southern Printmakers Society, which sought to bring print exhibits to the region and to raise standards for the art of printmaking. In the April 1936 issue of the national periodical Art Digest, Frank Anderson was quoted as saying, “The Southern Printmakers is not just another organization. It has a set purpose, and is accomplishing it successfully. The South has no lack of artists-but it has long lacked standards for these artists to reach.”
At this time, print societies had already been founded in other parts of the country, beginning with the New York Etching Club in 1877. Such societies allowed artists to share supplies and organize print exhibits, sales, and training. After a lull around the turn of the century, the Chicago Society of Etchers organized in 1910, followed by others in major and minor cities across the country by the mid 1930s. In the South, however, there was only a small, local etching club organized in Charleston, South Carolina in 1923 and defunct by 1933.
Birmingham had an art club, established in 1908, but Frank did not recruit from it for his organization. Instead, he solicited printmakers across the country through publicity in Art Digest, which featured a regular section devoted to prints. Referring to himself as secretary to the organization, Frank organized circuit exhibits of prints in major cities in the South and beyond, relying on local newspapers to publicize the shows. In a 1936 Art Digest article, Frank announced his goal of showing the best prints in the South, where few museums, galleries, and art schools existed. Like other promoters of fine prints in the 1930s, he believed strongly that the public should have more opportunities to buy affordable art. Prints, which sold for far less than paintings, offered a means to make art more accessible-even to the working class. Low cost was essential during a period of economic hardship when many people did not have money for food-let alone art.
The Southern Printmakers Society held its first exhibit of more than two hundred prints in 1936 at the Birmingham Public Library, prior to a tour of other southern cities. Artists with a strong national reputation such as Rockwell Kent, John Steuart Curry, Reginald Marsh, and John Taylor Arms were shown at this opening display. By 1937 the society had fifteen exhibits circulating, principally through the South and Midwest. In later exhibitions, Frank was able to display the work of a few artists with major national reputations, such as John Taylor Arms, who had a conservative, traditional bent that aligned with the general southern public.
The society went on to produce fine works in the major genres and print media of the day, including portraits, still lifes, and scenic views representative of the movement known as “American Scene.” The society’s prints were listed for sale in catalogs for anywhere from a few dollars to fifty, and Frank Anderson appears to have served as intermediary for sales.
The Andersons’ woodcarving Church Supper was selected as the Southern Printmakers Society’s first “presentation print,” an annual print offered to members for their financial support. It was made available to three classes of members: artists, patrons, and museums, with respective fees of three, five, and ten dollars. The print achieved further recognition when it won the Edward S. Shorter Prize in the Southern States An League annual in 1937. It went on to be shown at the Whitney Museum in New York and was chosen by the American Society of Etchers for a National Exhibition of Contemporary American Prints which were sent on tour to Scandinavian countries. The National Museum of Stockholm purchased it as well, and the New York Public Library proclaimed it one of the best prints added to its collection that year. The composition represents the Andersons’ highest achievement in the graphic arts.
BY 1938 THE ANDERSONS, who had taken out a mortgage during the worst part of the Depression, could no longer afford to stay in their Birmingham home. Frank Anderson obtained an architectural engineering position in Atlanta with the Army Corps of Engineers. The family soon re-established their base in Mt. Airy, Georgia, at Martha Andersen’s parents’ home, named Mountain Hall, in Habersham County. The couple transferred the society to this location as well, and by 1940 the number of exhibiting artists had more than doubled. The organization achieved some national recognition when six members, including the Andersons, were invited to exhibit a selection of their wood engravings at the Smithsonian in December 1940. In addition to Church Supper and Negro Preachin’ the Andersons exhibited four other lesser-known engravings: Cascades and Pool, Crab Apple Blossoms, Dark Study, and Bessemer Converters.
The Andersons worked to transform Mountain Hall into an art center, as it had more than ten acres of land, nine bedrooms, and a basement for studios. They called their nascent institution the “Appalachian Museum of Art,” hopeful that it would provide a lasting gallery and a permanent home for the Southern Printmakers Society. An article in the local newspaper, Northeast Georgian, presented plans to solicit contributions, and Frank Anderson wrote to Holger Cahill, director of the Federal Art Project, in March 1940 to see if there was any chance of gaining funding from a federal agency. However, by 1940 the New Deal was winding down and federal officials were not interested in opening another community art center. An article in Aft Digest indicated that although construction of a building had to wait for a later time, by 1940 the couple had found donors to finance art classes, which Martha taught at the local Piedmont College. As of 1942, Frank had devised additional donor categories: scholarships to finance art training, fellowships for poor artists to work and live at the Andersons’ center, and purchases of artists’ works.
Exhibits of the Southern Printmakers Society had to end when Frank Anderson, entering the military in 1942 as a Captain in the Army Specialist Corps, was moved to Boca Raton, Florida. Martha planned to keep the society going, but lack of publicity made this impossible. They attempted to revive the Southern Printmakers activities in 1946 after the war ended, but Frank Anderson’s death at Mountain Hall in the Spring of 1947 brought the effort to an end. Prints were still arriving when his daughter Martha Anderson Prince wrote, “Mother had to return the prints to the artists, a very sad job.”
Despite the dissolution of the Southern Printmakers Society, the Andersons’ contributions to the South’s artistic community have had a lasting impact to this day. Together, Frank and Martha Anderson challenged a region to improve the quality of its art education and production. Their creative partnership brought new opportunities, new artists, and a greater appreciation of the humanities to Alabama and Southern society.
LYNN BARSTIS WILLIAMS is Special Collections and Arc Librarian at Auburn University. Her article on the history of Alabama’s Gulf Coast art colonies, which Genevive Southerland organized in Mobile, Bayou Ia Batre, and Coden, appeared in the May 2000 issue of Gulf South Historical Review. She also has published an article on the Dixie Art Colony in Alabama Heritage, issue 41, Summer 1996. Her book on southern printmakers and their images of the South is forthcoming from the University of Alabama Press.
For further information, please see Karal Ann Marling’s Wall to Wall America: A Cultural History of Post Office Murals and the Great Depression (University of Minnesota Press, 1982), Designs on Birmingham: A Landscape History of a Southern City audits Suburbs (Birmingham Historical Society), edited by Phillip A. Morris and Marjorie Longenecker White, or visit www.mountainhall.org.
Copyright University of Alabama Press Fall 2005
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