Karel Yasko keeps these quotes from Harry Hopkins pinned on the wall of his office. They're not engraved on anything, just written on 3-by-5 cards: "Hunger is not debatable." And: "People don't eat in the long run. They eat every day."
Yasko, whose title at the General Services Administration is "Counselor for Fine Arts and Historic Preservation," is in truth a sort of den mother cum historian cum detective cum savior of New Deal art and artists. He is a one-man repository of endless anecdotes about the blossoming of American art under the sponsorship of the Public Works of Arts Project that began in 1933 through the WPA Art program that ended in 1942. He has personally helped recover, save and restore hundreds of works that flowed from some of America's greatest artists under the benevolent aegis of the New Deal and its successors.
The winter of 1933-34 was one of the worst. Those were the low temperature readings this winter's are measured against. But among the New Deal projects designed to meet the Depression misery of that year was the first of the programs for artists.
Francis Henry Taylor, who would become director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was one of the architects of that first arts program and in charge -- as a volunteer -- of the New England area.
As artists signed up to receive their $20 or so a week, he noticed that none of the artists he knew was wintering in Provincetown had signed up. He phoned. No answer. (No phones, he would discover.) Yet he knew they were there. They couldn't afford to leave at the end of the summer.
He and a deputy drove up to Provincetown and found a group of 15 or 20 artists. He got them together and urged them to sign up.
They said no. No bureaucrat would tell them what to do. No government control for them. At length, he persuaded them and signed them up.
Karel Yasko got the story from one of the artists who was there.
It hadn't really been their concern over bureaucracy that had kept them out of the program. None of them had two pennies to send a postcard to sign up. They were living on turnips and an occasional potato they could dig up.
In about a week, the first check came for the first artist. It was for $16.
At first, they all just looked at it, admired it, touched it.
Then they tried to cash it.
But the banker knew that those artists were down-in-the-mouth broke and refused to cash it.
Finally, after a postmaster called Boston to confirm the existence of the program, the artists got their cash.
And their first real meal in months -- of bread and milk and a little butter . . .
"Hopkins knew," says Yasko, "even artists had to eat."
Karel Yasko is 70. He started out as a muralist, studied sculpture and painting at Yale and eventually turned to architecture "because I didn't want to starve as a painter."
He was brought into the government by John Kennedy to "jazz up" federal architecture after some years in private practice and a stint as architect for the state of Wisconsin under then-governor Gaylord Nelson.
Always scrappy and untraditional, Yasko was often the center of controversy, whether it was the plans for the HUD building or the FBI building, which he helped guide, or the saving of a mural in the HEW cafeteria.
He decided, in the early '70s, to concentrate on persuading the art world that the so-called WPA art had merit. "Art historians," he says, "tended to sneer at it."
With a federal grant, Yasko organized a nationwide survey -- search, really -- for art from the various New Deal projects. He started out with a survey of what art was where. Murals in such federal buildings as courthouses and post offices were easy, but thousands of works of art had been underwritten by the federal government over the years and in many cases records had been discarded when the programs ended.
Art professors and teachers were hired to cover the country. "They found all sorts of things for us," says Yasko. A box full of records was turned up in the basement of a historical society in Madison, Wis. A Joe Stella painting was discovered "in excellent condition in a janitor's closet in Indianapolis."
"It was found," and Yasko, ever the Yalie, grins, "just after Harvard published the definitive work on Stella."
Yasko's office is a clutter; no, it is an Aladdin's cave of prints, etchings, original paintings, rolled-up prints, reproductions, photographs, models, all mixed in with World War I-vintage file cabinets, unfiled documents, assorted bric-a-brac and countless signs and posters with such imperatives as "It's Difficult to Soar with Eagles When You Work With Turkeys," or "A Cluttered Desk is a Sign of Genius."
He is excited because a group of junior high school students in Virginia may be on to a lost mural. It is less the mural than the interest of the young people. "It's wonderful. They troop in and out of here all the time, writing theses, papers, helping track down pictures, murals . . ."
Many of the New Deal arts projects involved competitions. Yasko found records indicating that a watercolor competition had produced several hundred entries from the likes of John Heliker and Ben Shahn.
About 200 of them eventually had been hung in the U.S. Public Health Service hospital for the treatment of leprosy in Carville, La.
"I discovered we paid $30 apiece for them," says Yasko. "Can you imagine paying $30 for a Ben Shahn watercolor?"
Nevertheless, only about 90 have so far been recovered, including 20 this week in a small, forgotten storeroom. In some cases patients had used the frames for their own pictures. Others have been tucked away in attics and storerooms. Thirteen thought to have been stolen were discovered in a pharmacy storeroom where they had been put "for safekeeping."
The two "saves" of which Yasko is most proud:
The John Laning mural (part of it) at Ellis Island. It was rained on for 10 years before he discovered it was there and had it removed to the Brooklyn courthouse. The mural depicted the jobs various ethnic groups became involved in upon their arrival in America. "And the Brooklyn Courthouse is the perfect place," says Yasko, "because 200 new citizens are sworn in there every week."
The William Gropper murals in the Detroit post office. They were nearly demolished with the building when a freeway was built. The murals were saved with the help of Nancy Hanks, Nixon's arts endowment chairman, and a cooperative Michigan postmaster, who stalled the wrecker's ball, which had been scheduled for December, by writing to Washington demanding "what damn fool wants us to move at the peak of our season." The murals were moved to Wayne State University where Gropper eventually was honored for his depiction of the automobile industry. (Gropper, whose left-wing politics caused him years of trouble, was not permitted to sketch inside major auto plants. "So," says Yasko, "he used Life magazine as his model."
Karel Yasko may write a book on the arts projects initiated by the New Deal. But first he must finish one on the wings of the White House and another on the Pension Building and its designer, Gen. Montgomery Cunningham Meigs. "Now there was a remarkable fellow," begins Yasko enthusiastically. But that is another story . . .