Edwin Boyd Johnson, born in Watertown, Tennessee in 1904, grew up in Nashville. He first studied art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and later at the National Academy of Design in New York. While attending the latter, Johnson received a fellowship that allowed him to study fresco paintings abroad at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Vienna, the Atelier de Fresque in Paris, and the École Égyptienne des Beaux-Arts in Alexandria, Egypt.
After returning from his trip abroad, Johnson came home to a suffering nation—the United States was experiencing one of the bleakest years of the Great Depression as the economy continued to spiral downward. In response Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed the New Deal, a series of programs that sought recovery and reform from the Great Depression by creating jobs and aiding the unemployed with a living wage. The first was the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), funded by the Civil Works Administration via the US Treasury Department. It was under a second, more aggressive series of federal programs (sometimes called the Second Deal) that the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was created. The WPA was designed to aid struggling writers, musicians, theatre directors, and artists in earning a living; for the latter, the Federal Art Project (FAP) (1935–1943) was established. The FAP became the largest of the New Deal art programs and focused on all areas of the visual arts—including design, the fine arts, and art education. Thousands of artists were commissioned by the government to create public works that recorded the hopes and realities of a shaken nation, which resulted in prints disseminated throughout the country and in popular magazines, hundreds of murals installed in various government buildings, and the creation of numerous community centers.
Johnson worked with watercolors and oils, but is most known for the mural paintings he created during the New Deal. He won several commissions to paint murals at post offices and other public buildings—at Cook County Hospital, Chicago; in Melrose Park, East Aurora, and Tuscola, Illinois; in Dickson, Tennessee; and in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He became a supervisor for the Elgin Division of the Federal Art Project (FAP) and was a part of a group that traveled to Alaska to document its wildlife. Later in life Johnson shifted his artistic focus to photography and took up residence in Mexico City.
In Mural Painting, Johnson incorporated various images that symbolize different aspects of the nation—notions of family with the mother and child, a symbol of sustenance and nourishment through the sheaf of wheat, a man holding a hammer as a reference to hard work, a representation of the idea of industry versus the common man with the inclusion of smokestacks, and a symbol of art with the classical nude placed on a pedestal. Perhaps the artist included these symbols for aspiration, even in the midst of all that was going on in the nation at the time.
Recently conserved by Chicago-based firm Restoration Division, Mural Painting had several major issues fixed before being installed in the exhibition. Puncture holes were found in military planes that appear at the top center of the painting and a large 1-1/2 inch tear occurred in the center left flag. Craquelures—networks of fine cracks in paint—were located in all of the corners. Most were oriented diagonally due to uneven canvas tension, as well as several radial and concentric craquelures that appeared throughout the work. The conservators also found light abrasions scattered throughout the painting, along the edges and on the male figure. Additionally, the painting required a thorough cleaning.
The conservators first removed the canvas from the frame and cleaned both sides with compressed air and a soft brush. The painting’s surface was cleaned with aqueous and mild organic solvents and the areas that surrounded the puncture holes and tears were delicately flattened.
To fix the tears and the puncture holes, the conservators aligned the edges of the tears and simply mended them, later attaching canvas inserts to the original canvas threads end-to-end by using thermoplastic paste resin and stabilizing the seams with conservation paste adhesive. In their treatment to the craquelures, the conservators treated to relax them and then partially fuse the paint film.
The stretcher support was also repaired: a vertical brace was added for additional support and the bottom stretcher bars were straightened. Once re-stretched, areas of repair on the canvas were selectively filled with marble powder gesso and a texture, similar to the artist’s brushstroke, was recreated with acrylic gesso. A thin buffering coat of removable varnish was applied and other areas of abrasions or paint loss were inpainted with color and light-fast paints. Lastly, the conservators applied several thin coats of non-yellowing, removable varnish of satin luster, to keep from any further paint loss.
The conservation was funded by the generosity of the Travis B. Poole and Robert B. Smith Conservation and Preservation Fund. This painting is included in the exhibition Enough to Live On: Art of the WPA, which will be on view through April 22, 2017.