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WPA Alaska painting for sale in New York

A New York man says he has found a forgotten painting from an interesting period of Alaska’s history, a time during the Great Depression when the federal Works Progress Administration sent a dozen artists from northern states to sketch and paint Alaska.

The painting is signed by Karl Fortess and shows a gloomy coastal scene with dark mountains, forbidding clouds, dead trees, and boats, nets and shacks.

It’s a bit mysterious. No one can say whether the painting portrays an actual place or something from the artist’s imagination, and the artist died in 1993. But the scene is very similar to a Fortess painting the Anchorage Museum of History and Art has in its WPA collection, said museum curator Walter Van Horn.

Fortess was a Woodstock, N.Y., artist who taught at the Boston University School for the Arts and exhibited at Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and New York museums.

Jeff Barge, a New York public relations man, said the painting had apparently hung in Woodstock for decades. Barge bought it about a year ago from a collector who had it in a Manhattan apartment.

“He told me it was a Woodstock painting. Woodstock sounded interesting, so I got it,” Barge said. He looked up the artist and discovered Fortess had traveled to Alaska with the WPA. Barge is now trying to sell the painting on eBay, the auction Web site, and also by sending out news releases on it. On eBay, he asked for a minimum bid of $5,000.

The WPA provided jobs to all sorts of unemployed people to offset the hardships of the Depression.

Twelve artists were paid $135 each per month, plus a travel advance of $100, to work in Alaska for several months in 1937 under the WPA’s Federal Arts Project. The idea was that there would be an exhibition later, and the art would help promote Alaska.

The artists made stops in Southeast Alaska, Mount McKinley Park, Fairbanks and other parts of the territory.

But the planned exhibit never happened — at least not back then.

The government was afraid a show would result in negative publicity because of the costs of the project, according to material gathered by the Anchorage museum. The art was apparently scattered, said curator Van Horn. Some ended up with the Alaska Railroad, which operated the Mount McKinley Lodge and displayed it there. Some was loaned to the governor’s mansion in Juneau. Some seems to have been distributed in the Lower 48.

“These things have turned up in odd places,” Van Horn said. Some of the artists appear to have kept some of their work, he said. Some may have exchanged their work with other artists.

Barge said he decided to sell the Fortess because he didn’t know what to do with it.

“I work in public relations. One thing I know how to do is write a press release and see who has a use for it,” he said.

Barge named the painting “Alaska Fishing Village Dawn, 1937.” He said he believes it was from the 1937 expedition because it is so similar to Fortess sketches and paintings that the Anchorage museum has, Barge said.

The WPA was disbanded and the artwork turned over to the U.S. General Services Administration in 1949.

The GSA is now trying to recover Depression-era artwork that it says remains in federal ownership.

The Anchorage museum has about 100 pieces from the trip, Van Horn said, including paintings, drawings and sketches.

The museum would not necessarily want to acquire Barge’s Fortess painting because it has similar Fortess work, Van Horn said.

“Even though it is larger (20 inches by 34 inches), that doesn’t make it better than the ones we already have,” he said.

Still, among the WPA Alaska artists, Van Horn said he remembers Fortess with affection.

The Anchorage museum gathered as much Alaska WPA art as it could find and produced a display in 1987, the 50th anniversary of the trip. Fortess, with a gruff, deep voice, tape-recorded his thoughts about the Alaska expedition for the Anchorage museum exhibit.

“The country itself … it’s grand. It’s so damn grand. … It’s like trying to paint Niagara Falls or a brilliant sunset or the Grand Canyon or some other visual aspect of nature which can only be described by people who have lived in it, have soaked it up,” Fortess said in his oral essay.

He also told a story about a run-in on a train going to Fairbanks with a hardy Alaska woman, “a real gung-ho type who sort of had the appearance and the build of two very good lumberjacks. … When the lady discovered that there were a number of government artists on the train, she kept going through the car we were in, saying: ‘… They send us artists; we don’t need artists up here. We need more roads.’”