Louie Ewing's WPA "Navajo Blankets' Portfolio: A Short History
Louie Ewing’s “Navajo Blankets” portfolio was a Southwestern WPA prints art project. In 1935, Louie Ewing traveled to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and realized that it was the place he wanted to live. He found himself surrounded by a thriving community of artists in which he could grow and learn. Ewing pursued his interests in drawing and painting, often accepting commissions as commercial artist and also taught school to support his family. During the Depression some of his work was supported by the local WPA FAP program. The serigraphs in this portfolio were made between 1939 and 1942 as part of a WPA art project.
The WPA prints portfolio, originally conceived of by Russell Vernon Hunter (WPA New Mexico Director) and Kenneth Chapman (Curator of the Laboratory of Anthropology), was carried out as a joint project of the New Mexico Art Program of the Work Projects Administration (WPA) and the Laboratory of Anthropology. The “Navajo Blankets” portfolio grew from an idea to produce serigraph prints using actual textiles from museum collections. It was felt that by producing silkscreen images of Navajo blankets, woven between 1840 and 1910, that an interested and distant public could view these distinctive design styles.
Supplied only with mimeographed pamphlets from Washington, Louie Ewing began the process of teaching himself serigraphy. (As an aside, it should be noted that at least one other artist may have aided Louie Ewing with this project, Eliseo Jose Rodriquez.) It’s of interest to me that to produce the complete “Navajo Blankets” portfolio, Ewing completed 3,000 finished prints (15 prints per portfolio x 200 sets). Each image cut by Ewing and then printed by his own hand. If we consider that the least number of paints used on a single print consists of four colors (the most seven), Ewing would have needed to pull an astonishing 12,000 "correct" impressions (3,000 finished prints x 4 paint colors) for the entire portfolio.
Louie Ewing made his stencils on a special double-layered film consisting of a thin sheet of lacquer supported by a sheet of glassine backing paper. He cut-traced the designs for the Navajo blanket images into the top layer of the stencil film. Once Ewing executed the design, the film was carefully stripped away to allow paint to be pressed through. Because Ewing created multicolored images, he had to cut-trace a separate image for each color. After the first stencil for the first color was cut and stripped, it was affixed to a piece of silk fabric stretched over a frame. This silkscreen supported the stencil and served as a reservoir for the paint. Paint was poured along one side of the frame and pressed across the screen using a rubber squeegee onto paper. The first color applied is the bottom most in the series so color planning is important. In this way as paint was pressed through successive stencils a partial picture began to emerge until the final color was applied and the finished silkscreen image of a Navajo blanket was finished.
Just prior to her death, I spoke with Ewing’s wife Virginia about this WPA FAP project. At the time of the Project she was married to Russell Vernon Hunter and after his death married Ewing. She remembered that many years later, the large screens used for this project still stood in a corner of Ewing’s studio. One day while in his studio she asked him about them and was somewhat surprised to hear Ewing discuss the difficulty of pushing paint through such large screens. He stated bluntly that due to the physical nature of the project he would never do such large prints again.
Initially produced as a limited edition of 100 print portfolios, the set as planned, was distributed to a variety of state and national institutions. A second set of 100 (numbered 101-200) was to become a problem. Hunter and Ewing had conceived of the idea of making the second set to offset their out of pocket costs and were evidently printed by Ewing on his own time. Word soon came from Washington that the second set, using screens produced originally with government money could not be sold and should be recalled and destroyed. At least one survived.
Today a complete portfolio is rare. Of the first set, it seems that most of the institutions who received them, disposed of them, probably due to a combination of (1) the portfolios large size, (2) the problem with storing them, and (3) a disinterested distant public librarian. What became of the bulk of the second set is unknown. Some did survive, as evidenced by this portfolio, but evidently most were either lost, given away, or destroyed by Russell Vernon Hunter or Louie Ewing as suggested by Washington. In my conversation with Virginia Ewing she did say that even Louie did not hold a complete set. She noted that she finally saw a complete set in a Santa Fe museum after Ewing's death.
© Allan J. McIntyre
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