The concept of the Index was developed by two women, Ruth Reeves, a textile designer, and Romana Javitz, the head of the picture collection at the New York Public Library. Reeves would go to the library to look at the picture files for design inspiration, and Javitz would regret that she could not always furnish the materials the artist was seeking. Together they discussed the need to have a resource that could be used by artists looking for images from American material culture.
The duo developed a plan and approached Holger Cahill, the director of the FAP and an authority on American modernism and folk, about the possibility of creating the Index of American Design. Cahill was very supportive and successfully promoted the inclusion of the Index into the larger scope of the FAP.
An office was opened in Washington, D.C., and before the FAP would end, more than 34 states and the District of Columbia supported offices that worked with local artists in many different ways, including locating artifacts worthy of being visually recorded. The Index was not meant to be a catalog, however, but a visual archive that represented the creative spirit of America as found in works of art, primarily American folk art. The organizers harbored the idea that American modernism would reflect the simple, powerful design expressed through a group of anonymous artists and craftsmen who worked from the time of the founding of the nation through the end of the 18th century.
One of the goals of the Index organizers was to produce a series of images that could be widely distributed, so that more Americans could become familiar with the nation’s art traditions. Many of the artists chosen for the Index project had the technical skills and training that would enable them to create clean, clear and concise images of the chosen objects. There were strict guidelines for artist selection and if they did not meet the qualifications of producing outstanding works, they were removed from the program.
The goal was to create images of folk, popular and decorative art forms that other Americans could use as a source for inspiration and creative originality. Many of the more than 22,000 images produced resonate beyond the mere visual recording of the object; they become artworks in and of themselves. Several of the artists achieved highly personal styles for recording weather vanes, toys, tavern signs, ship figureheads, stoneware vessels, bird decoys and many other decorative objects.
These images were used in magazine and newspaper articles, public lectures and exhibitions. The exhibitions were held not just in museums and historical societies, but in locations that were easily accessible to the largest number of people. At the 1939 World’s Fair in New York there was a large exhibit of Index designs. Some of the most innovative and original exhibits to promote the Index and the idea of American modernism were held in large department stores. As a result, the Index would become one of the most familiar and widely accepted and appreciated art projects of the New Deal era.
The Index also contains more than 20 examples of folk art designs from the Southwest region of the United States. Pious folk artists known as santeros carved bultos (three-dimensional objects) from cottonwood that was then coated with gesso. The bultos were then painted with water soluble pigments. The traveling santeros also created retablos, sacred images that were painted on flat panels. Collectively, bultos and retablos are referred to as santos, and they could be found in homes and churches throughout the region of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. They served as a means to enlist the intersession of the saint by the faithful.
The Franciscans established many missions throughout northern New Mexico at the end of the 16th century. In many cases, the missions were located in the pueblos (adobe villages) inhabited by the native people. Because of poverty and the isolation of New Mexico at that time, a highly original and unique form of art was created in this region. This early sacred art has the feeling and stylistic details of the religious art of the Middle Ages.
One of the treasures of the WPA project has become known as the "E. Boyd Portfolio." Living in Santa Fe, E. Boyd had access to original local works and was determined to make sure that they were recorded. Working with more than 40 artists, compositors and engravers, Boyd and crew produced more than 50 individually hand-colored woodcuts measuring 11 by 14 inches and a text on the Hispanic art forms found in northern New Mexico. Written and published by Boyd in 1938, the original 200 copies of the “Portfolio of Spanish Colonial Design in New Mexico” contained images of many forms of traditional Spanish colonial arts and crafts in northern New Mexico. It remains one of the oldest published texts on the subject.
Captions for images from top:
Eldora P. Lorenzini, "Bulto" of Saint Isidore," 1938, watercolor, pen and ink, and graphite on paper, "Drawing on America's Past: Folk Art, Modernism, and the Index of American Design," National Gallery of Art, 2003. Image courtesy of NGA.
E. Boyd, "Chest of Native Pine," painted in oil, 1935/1942, "Drawing on America's Past: Folk Art, Modernism, and the Index of American Design," National Gallery of Art, 2003. Image courtesy of NGA.
E. Boyd, "Saint Isidore," bulto, watercolor on paper, 1938, "Portfolio of Spanish Colonial Design in New Mexico." Image courtesy of the Permanent Collection of the Roswell Museum and Art Center, Roswell, New Mexico. All rights reserved, copyright, Roswell Museum and Art Center.
E. Boyd, "Our Lady of Guadalupe," bulto, watercolor on paper, 1938, "Portfolio of Spanish Colonial Design in New Mexico." Image courtesy of the Permanent Collection of the Roswell Museum and Art Center, Roswell, New Mexico. All rights reserved, copyright, Roswell Museum and Art Center.
E. Boyd, "Main Altarpiece, Laguna,” watercolor on paper, 1938, "Portfolio of Spanish Colonial Design in New Mexico." Image courtesy of the Permanent Collection of the Roswell Museum and Art Center, Roswell, New Mexico. All rights reserved, copyright, Roswell Museum and Art Center.