Examining Connecticut’s identity through 1930s art

Amy Trout, curator of the Connecticut River Museum in Essex, will lead the second installment of the Wilton Library Association and Wilton Historical Society 10th annual scholarly lecture series at Wilton Library on Sunday, Feb. 26.

In her talk on Connecticut and the Federal Art Project: Idealism and Identity During the 1930s, Trout will discuss how the Federal Art Project (1935-1943) can be used to examine Connecticut’s identity during the 1930s, as well as how the project came to be and how it operated.

The project was one of five Federal Project Number One efforts designed to fund visual arts in the United States. Sponsored by the Works Progress Administration, the Federal Art Project was the largest of the New Deal art project programs enacted in the 1930s.

“It was a relief effort specially geared toward putting unemployed artists to work and enhancing public buildings with art,” said Trout.

“It was a revolutionary concept to put people to work painting murals and making people feel good about their community and country.”

Trout said she believes the Federal Art Project can be used like literature, films and other cultural works to study the period of the 1930s.

“The program was idealistic and promoted its art as depicting a ‘sense of place,’” she said, “so my thesis is that we can see Connecticut through this artwork.”

Trout said Connecticut’s identity was greatly influenced by the Great Depression.

“People were very anxious about unemployment, and the state was a mixture of diversified industry and rural communities,” said Trout. “We also had a major river and shoreline.”

This “varied landscape and diverse working population,” she said, is reflected in the artwork of the Federal Art Project.

The artwork, Trout said, also shows that the 1930s weren’t just all “gloom and doom.”

“People were active — vibrant and working, struggling, and getting on with their lives,” she said. “I also believe that decade foreshadowed much of what was going to come in the 1950s during urban renewal.”

The historical commemorations that dominated towns and cities were an “underexamined aspect of the decade,” said Trout.

“Connecticut and many of its communities spent an enormous amount of time celebrating their tercentenary,” she said, which “heightened awareness of local history as seen in the murals in the schools and other public buildings.”

Trout said she also feels the Federal Art Project artwork “represents some of the tensions between urban and rural communities” in the state.

“There were a lot of dynamics at work during the 30s,” she said.

During her talk, Trout will present artwork from a cross-section of artists throughout the state.

“There are not very many ‘famous’ artists to tout, but that is part of the charm of the program,” she said.

One of the most recognizable artists would be James Daugherty, who did projects in Fairfield County, said Trout, but there were also “dozens of very interesting artists,” such as pioneer surrealist George Marinko, of Waterbury, and Beatrice Cuming, of New London, who painted urban waterfronts.

Trout has done several talks on the Federal Art Project in Connecticut, but this will be her first in Wilton.

“I hope people who enjoy the arts and cultural history attend it,” she said.


This year’s scholarly series will run through April, with all talks taking place from 4 to 5:30. The next lectures are:

  • March 12: Finding Brass Valley, a Place in Time That Has Almost Vanished, with Emery Roth at Wilton Library.

  • March 26: Navigating the New Digital Landscape of Knowledge, with Julia Adams at Wilton Historical Society.

  • April 2: 9/11 and America’s World View, with Matthew Warshauer at Wilton Historical Society.

Receptions will follow each lecture. There is no charge, but registration for each lecture is required.

Information and registration: www.wiltonlibrary.org.