Brushstrokes and Pen Strokes: How a Careful Judge Saved an Artistic Treasure

Article excerpt

Every week, hundreds of immigrants travel to the ceremonial courtroom of the Theodore Roosevelt United States Courthouse in Brooklyn, N.Y. to take the final step in becoming United States citizens. Often at the suggestion of the federal judges who preside over the naturalization ceremonies, some of these new Americans take time to admire sections of a 72-foot oil on canvas mural containing vibrant images of an earlier generation of immigrants that adorns the courtroom. Yet few are aware of this artwork's tumultuous history or how - but for the thorough work of a thoughtful judge- these panels would have been tragically destroyed.

The panels comprise The Role of the Immigrant in the Industrial Development in America, a mural funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) that once graced the dining hall of the Immigration Station on Ellis Island. "The mural is the most public kind of painting," observed Edward Laning (1906-1981), a preeminent muralist who created the work. "A good mural ought to be a source of public inspiration."

The Role of the Immigrant inspires through industry: like a map, Laning's vision seamlessly integrates disparate activities by newly-arrived immigrants from West to East across the continent. In the West, Irish and Chinese track workers struggle to build the Pacific railroad, while in the Midwestern grain belt, farmers sow and harvest crops. In the East, miners dig for coal and operate a blast furnace, and at Ellis Island, the gateway to Laning's vision, a group of frightened, tired immigrants arrive in their newly-adopted country. Through these vignettes, Laning depicts the great engines that transformed America - machine and muscle, sweat and steam - all fueled by a steady stream of new arrivals, soon to be Americans.

Interestingly, there is no joy depicted in the work; rather, the mural's characters are solemnly determined people who have come from around the world to labor together to build something great. This tone befits the period depicted and is also appropriate to the time of the mural's creation: in the wake of the Great Depression, when many Americans resented immigration policies, Laning judiciously cast his tribute to immigrants as embodying both hardship and hard work.

Laning created The Role of the Immigrant in 1937, during a period he later described as a "golden age" for mural artists. That should not suggest, however, that the time was easy for artists like Laning: In his autobiography, Memoirs of a WPA Painter, Laning described how he "went broke like nearly everybody else" in 1934, and stopped receiving support from his family. He borrowed money, traded paintings for food and fell behind in his rent. The advent of the Federal Art Project under the WPA later that year provided a haven for Laning and other artists. Opportunities still remained scarce, but Laning was able to secure assignments to create murals for the Postal Service and Treasury Department. Eventually, the program became his livelihood.

In 1937, the New York director of the Federal Art Project asked Laning to submit a design for a mural to be displayed on Ellis Island. "It was obvious," Time magazine reported, "that Ellis Island was an ideal place for a project." However, the design needed the approval of Rudolf Reimer, a coal industry executive recently appointed Commissioner of Immigration. Reimer considered himself an expert on history, and demonstrated a near-obsessive penchant for accuracy in historical detail to an almost bizarre extent: another artist had walked off the project in frustration after Reimer rejected drawings based on a laundry list of complaints, from the fact that farm workers had been depicted in creased pants to the breed of horse used to pull a cart. Laning, now 29 years old and considered the most promising of the WPA muralists, thus brought his sketches to Reimer with some trepidation.

Reimer did not disappoint. "You don't know much about railroading, and you don't know a damned thing about coal mining! …