Negotiating Public Art: Roy Schatt’s “Harvesting Tobacco” (1941)
Art manifests the good, the bad and the ugly of history and humanity. The good can be in what is depicted, the bad in the origins and the ugly in the creator, with each of these aspects interchangeable. Art is subjective, and when context, intent, placement and purpose are viewed in isolation rather than as constitutive elements of a complex composite, art is often controversial.
Today, contests over the meaning and visibility of public art consume national attention. What is public art? Public art is any work of art purchased or created with public funds. During the New Deal — a watershed federal program implemented during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt- for the first time in United States history federally funded public art projects transformed public space across the nation. Federal money was dispensed to the states via New Deal programs and in one fell swoop, the expansion of federal power changed American politics. Art was a tool in this process.
Established in 1935, the Works Progress Administration employed 8.5 million people over its eight years of operation and employed writers and artists to create paintings, murals, narratives and sculptures that captured the American experience and conveyed the democratic values that defined national character. Both the WPA and the Treasury Department funded thousands of public art projects in the inter-war period and in the process, revolutionized the state’s use of public space to promote American nationalism through the visual arts.
Public art is today the subject of contested ideas about what should and should not be displayed in public space with taxpayer funds. When this debate is distilled to the local level, community response to contested public art extends from changes in demographics, economics, culture and political power. A grassroots lens to observe diachronic shifts in perception about public art is a post office mural in North Carolina titled Harvesting Tobacco (1941) by Roy Schatt.
A bit of history explains the historic moment around Schatt’s journey to paint this picture of tobacco harvesting. Between 1937 and 1943 southeastern post offices and courthouses received over 300 murals and sculptures through the Treasury Section of Fine Arts formed in 1934 during the New Deal. Its main function was to select high quality art to decorate public buildings. Often mistaken for Works Progress Administration art, post office murals were produced by artists who worked for the Section of Fine Arts — known as “The Section”- administered by the Procurement Division of the United States Treasury Department. The Section was not a relief program for unemployed artists but instead a competitive, merit based and selective initiative that used highly trained artists to produce American themed art to embellish municipal buildings. Initially, to qualify to enter a regional competition, an artist had to reside or have roots in the area. With few applicants from the South, the challenge of engaging southern artists led to modified rules that lifted the residential requirement. Once an artist was selected, they traveled to the location and viewed firsthand what they were to portray in the artwork.
Commissioned in 1940 on the eve of the United States’ entry into WWII, Harvesting Tobacco was painted by Roy Schatt for the Whiteville, NC post office and completed a year later. Born in 1909 and a native of New York City, Schatt trained at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, DC and studied painting with N. C. Wyeth, a realist painter known for over three thousand paintings and illustrations. Shortly after completing the mural in Whiteville, Schatt joined the U.S. Army and served in India from 1942-45. Roy returned to NYC in 1945 and became a noted photographer who cultivated a specific natural light method to photograph legends like James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Malcolm X.
But, before the iconic photographs, he was a painter. The pinnacle of Schatt’s painting career was Harvesting Tobacco. Painted in tempera- a very difficult and technical medium that uses either pigments bound in a water-soluble emulsion- like water and egg yolk- or an oil-in-water emulsion- like oil and a whole egg, Schatt’s portrayal of the tobacco harvest proffered a progressive view of southern labor relations. Depicting interracial labor and gender integration in the division of field work, Schatt’s tobacco field was a democratized space where men and women of both races labored together to produce an American staple central to the economy of the region. His work was part of a broad, disparate movement of intellectuals, artists, writers and educators in the interwar period who conveyed through their works that true democracy was realizing a common humanity transcendent of race, gender and class.
This was a reactionary movement at a moment when the dehumanization of eugenics, the rise of European fascism, the inhumanity of war abroad and race violence and exclusion at home challenged American democratic principles of freedom and equality. Moreover, by 1941 Hitler’s theft of European art was a systematic part of Nazi conquest that weaponized art. By confiscating the artistic symbols of nationalism in Nazi occupied countries and either appropriating them as German or destroying them, the Nazi’s used theft and destruction as a tool of war to erase national heritage.
Schatt’s painting is emblematic of the values inherent in the narrative of Americanization federal art imbued during the New Deal. Nothing in Schatt’s experience as an artist prefigured his exposure to tobacco culture in a rural area of North Carolina. In an era long before interstates, mass media and internet hegemony, Schatt encountered a culture far removed from his own and conveyed a vision of democratized labor in his mural. Despite the broken narratives of democracy that existed at the time- segregation, political exclusion and inequality- problems compounded by southern illiteracy and poverty- his vision of tobacco labor augmented the democratic ideals that shaped Americanization on the home-front during WWII.
Consider the culture Schatt captured, a once-upon-a-time vital heartbeat of North Carolina economic life. In the aftermath of tobacco lawsuits, anti-smoking campaigns and the death of small towns dependent on tobacco production, only dusty fields, empty warehouses and old tobacco barns dotting the landscape remind a generation removed that this crop and the way of life around it once mattered.
In its simplest form, culture is a way of life passed down from one generation to another. Tobacco culture defined North Carolina. It was a crop that supported everything from farms to fairs with its origins in the first British colony in the Americas, Jamestown. In a ‘A Counterblaste to Tobacco’ King James 1 of England described tobacco smoking as a ‘custome lothesome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black and stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.’ By 1612 when John Rolfe planted a tasty strain in the Jamestown colony- two years before he married Pocahontas- tobacco saved the Jamestown colony from ruin, and within a decade, tobacco smoke was considered a healthy way to combat ‘bad air’ and disease.
Flash forward four centuries, and by the early twentieth-century North Carolina was the world leader in the production of what King James labelled a ‘noxious’ weed, with giants like RJ Reynolds and Phillip Morris sourcing tobacco each fall at auctions across the state.
Although shunned today, dipping, chewing, smoking and spitting tobacco were civic duties as many made their living by it. Historically, spitting was such a problem that fines were imposed if a person spit in the street (this stemmed from the belief that TB spread through saliva). A 1905 ordinance in High Point declared “that it shall be a misdemeanor for any person to spit upon any sidewalk pavement, or upon the steps, columns or floors of any public building, such as depots, post office, schools or churches, within the city limits.” The fine for that offense was $2. Public spittoons could be found on most streets to accommodate those chewers and spitters. Imagine that.
Tobacco production was part of the cultural identity of North Carolina. The seasonal clock ticked around the growing, cultivation and selling of tobacco. Tobacco farming was a year round process and demanded constant attention and experienced workers during every phase from planting, tending and harvesting the crops by hand to curing and transporting the product to market. North Carolina was known for Bright Leaf tobacco, a strain discovered in 1839 by a slave named Stephen on the farm of Abisha Slade in Caswell County. He threw logs on the fire instead of using coal and cured bright yellow tobacco. By the turn of the twentieth-century, North Carolina was the world’s leading supplier of Bright Leaf tobacco.
During the Great Depression, in order to keep the tobacco industry afloat, the government implemented the Agriculture Adjustment Act of 1938. This put quotas- or limits- on how much farmers could sell based on their past production level and guaranteed higher prices per pound. Individual farmers could rent quotas and sell their allotment to larger farms. By 1955 North Carolina had produced over 1 billion pounds of tobacco. In Columbus County, tobacco was not grown in bulk until 1914 and after WW1, Whiteville became one of the leading towns for tobacco production in North Carolina.
Schatt captured the significance of tobacco to Columbus County, and equally, the importance of Columbus County to the production of tobacco. As a northern artist with no southern heritage, his observation of men and women, black and white, bound together by a crop wove a community together. To consider his depiction as less than democratic fails to account for the historical moment when he painted the mural and the nationalist objective of post office murals in wartime America.
Public art is part of the shared folklore and culture of Americans. Perception of the symbols that assign meaning to American nationalism is dynamic. Art gets caught in those crosshairs. Schatt’s depiction of the tobacco field evolves in relation to the hopes, aspirations and ideals of succeeding generations. His mural is a local example of why the world around an object and its original intent must factor into the analysis of what is displayed in the public sphere, who decides what something means and why history matters. Without this framework of understanding, history and the symbols that resonate with particular moments in the past are reduced to nothing more than discarded objects subject to the judgment rather than the analysis of the viewer.
*Schatt’s mural was restored by the Smithsonian in 1978 then relocated to Southeastern Community College where it was on display until March of 2020. It will soon reside in Whiteville City Hall.