Many articles about June Wayne (1918-2011) state that she dropped out of high school because she wanted to become an artist. After reading Betty Hoag’s June 14, 1965 interview of Wayne for Archive’s of American Art’s New Deal and the Arts project, we concluded that’s the lazy answer. The proper answer, in her words, is much more interesting.
“I was maladjusted,” Wayne tells Hoag. High school “was much too big for me and I never could figure out just why, as I was getting adjusted to a room, a bell would ring and I’d have to pick up and go somewhere else. I never developed much context.”
(Was that our problem in high school? We never developed the proper context?)
Wayne also had an art teacher at the time who had taken her aside and said, “Well, my dear, you’ll never make it. You ought to pick something else.” And from that day on, ditching school to go read in the local library became a full-time “job.”
Of course once her mother learned the truth, she told Wayne her choices were few: go to school or go to work. Wayne took the entrance exams for the University of Chicago and passed them, but the family (maternal grandmother, mother, and Wayne) could not afford the tuition, so in 1932, Wayne found work in a factory.
Because this was the Great Depression, Wayne says no one was giving a lot of thought to the arts—art was not taken seriously, becoming an artist was not socially acceptable, and making a living as an artist was considered unrealistic.
Craft was admired in Wayne’s household: her mother was craft-oriented and a business woman, and her grandmother was a beautiful sewer, a skilled knitter, and had, in earlier years, help her husband carve carriage wheels with detailed wooden pegs by hand. “But nonetheless you didn’t take seriously an actual ‘art for art’s sake.'” Even so, Wayne had her first solo exhibition in Chicago in 1935 and a second one in Mexico City the following year.
The Work Projects Administration begun by President Roosevelt ultimately employed 8.5 million people with women making up 35.5 percent in the peak year of 1938 (PBS.org). Wayne became one of those women in the Federal Art Project, Easel Division.
“I remember once on the WPA project hearing another artist…mention Picasso.…But I hadn’t the slightest idea who Picasso was.…My education in art was nil, absolutely nil!”
But Wayne had had two exhibits and she was accepted into the Project, though she has no memory of how. “I do remember thinking that whoever it was that decided I was an artist was agreeing with me, though I couldn’t see particularly that they had any standards because certainly I didn’t have any. I didn’t know what was good and what wasn’t good.”
Everything Wayne created before 1947, she considered “intuitive, inchoate, uninformed.”
The big reward she received from working in the FAP was the fact that “Congress had no expectation that anything by way of national culture, or a heritage, was going to result from anything as bizarre as having a category called artists on the relief programs.” But in doing so, in paying artists to “art” as she says, “the way plumbers were expected to plumb,” the result was that the artists were actually called artists, many for the very first time. “It gave them an identity.”
In a peculiar way this sense of identity in a category, an impersonal category that was a workmanlike category, a reasonable category since it was apparently as reasonable as being a plumber or a ditch digger, gave a sense of identity, however fragmentary, to artist(s) who till that time really could not find a slot for themselves within society.
The government was paying the bills but had no expectations—it was a perfect fit. Artists were provided materials, produced work, were paid and able to survive (however barely), and “there was, for the first time, a sense of linking to society with something other than the raised eyebrow.” She also contends that the “indifference of Congress was tremendously important.”
Wayne went on to design jewelry in New York City, became an Army wife, then while her husband was stationed overseas, moved to California and attended Cal Tech, learning how to read blueprints and do airplane production illustration. Later, she became a radio writer for WGN in Chicago, and finally, after the war, began to turn from painting to lithography.
I became very interested in optics. And I began working out problems that I wanted to explore in other media because oil on canvas has been, to me, a sick kind of medium. The materials are antithetical to each other; that is to say, that oil expands and shrinks at a different rate than canvas does.…Oil on canvas is a basically idiotic combination.
Looking for a new medium, Wayne was lucky to find Lynton Kistler, a master printer, just down the block from where she lived. She was able to convince him to allow her to take home a stone on which she would try to draw. She was fascinated and her love of lithography commenced.
Wayne seems to have a been a woman who enjoyed working out problems, digging for details, not shying away from what she didn’t know, and ready to tackle, consult, mull, consider, and experiment.
In her lithograph “The Cavern,” she experimented with focal, peripheral vision, and binocular vision. “This particular print is a fairly sophisticated statement already of certain optical principles that I was probing in my work….”
The celebrated Tamarind Lithography Workshop “resulted from an accident.” Wayne had wanted to make a livre deluxe, a hand-made book, on the songs and sonnets of John Dunne. This was nothing unusual for a European artist at the time (1958), but “for an American to do a book was quite far out.” Wayne had also been a consultant to the Ford Foundation and on her way to Europe had been asked for her opinion on who to nominate for their annual $10,000 grant. In response, she wrote a “snippy” letter, expressing her disapproval of the program. “I don’t think artists should leap for pennies.” As a result she was asked to stop in and see Mr. Lowry at the Ford Foundation.
Wayne had no idea who Mr. W. McNeil Lowry was and perhaps in this circumstance ignorance may be considered bliss because her remarks were uncensored, blunt, and honest. Monuments Man Lincoln Kirstein, co-founder of the New York City Ballet, called Lowry, “the single most influential patron of the performing arts that the American democratic system has produced” (Chicago Tribune/New York Times Service, 1993). Wayne recalled that she acted in a “very high-handed fashion” and “didn’t know what they wanted and really cared less.” Luckily, Wayne didn’t completely disregard Lowry because through his persistence and her rather surly attitude and perseverance, Tamarind was formed and the art of lithography in America was revitalized, some would even say saved from extinction.
Through August 31st, Pasadena Museum of California Art presents a collection of June Wayne’s work, from the “early Social Realist paintings through her lithographs responding to the literary works of Franz Kafka and John Donne, to The Dorothy Series (groundbreaking print biography of her Russian immigrant mother), through her tapestries and innovative light-reflective paintings, to her digital prints.”
June Wayne: Paintings, Prints & Tapestries
Through Sunday, August 31st
Wednesday-Sunday, noon-5 p.m.
PMCA, 490 E. Union St., Pasadena 91101
Cost: $7, general; $5, seniors & students
First Friday of every month, noon-5 p.m.
Third Thursday of every month, 5-8 p.m.
For details, visit PMCAonline.org
Or call 626.568.3665
Image, top right: June Wayne, The Target, 1951. Lithograph on Strathmore Fiesta, 17.5″ x 21.75″. The June Wayne Collection.
Editor’s Note: This article contains images of June Wayne’s work that may not necessarily be included in PMCA’s exhibit. We’ve included them here as an introduction to her work.
All quotes and information culled from Oral history interview with June Wayne, 1965 June 14, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, which is of the public domain.