In October of 1943, the Milwaukee Journal described Margot Holt Bostick, who had just been awarded first prize in an exhibition entitled “Artists for Victory,” as a “little known woman etcher” from Tulsa, Oklahoma. The judges were major figures in the early 20th-century art world, including artist William Gropper and Philadelphia Museum of Art curator Carl Zigrosser. We are lucky to have an equally striking print by Bostick from the same year in our collection, and in this essay, student Greg Crothers suggests why World War II-era audiences might have found this particular example of Bostick’s work unusually powerful.
The general image of the middle class woman in classic American society has always been one of domesticity. The woman’s place was in the home, a diametric opposite to the industrial workspace, which was a masculine domain. The onset of World War II, however, threw this assumption for a loop. Demand for industrial production skyrocketed in response to the needs of the war effort, but that same effort drained the American labor pool of able-bodied young men – the traditional industrial laborer. To meet this demand, the nation had to set aside its long held gender prejudices and accept women in to the mechanized workforce – and for a time, at least, it not only did so, but also managed to celebrate these females as patriotic champions.
It is with this mindset that one must consider Margot Holt Bostick’s The Welder. In this image, a lone worker – garbed in welder’s mask, overalls, heavy gloves and a thick, protective smock – utilizes a welding torch in the fabrication of some industrial component. The individual is surrounded by a dark colored curtain, all set against a greenish void that gives the work a dark palette. This does not make the piece ominous or foreboding, however, as it quickly becomes apparent that this dark atmosphere exists to highlight the bright light being given off by the torch, which is reflected off of the worker and accented by excited sparks flying in every direction. The piece’s muted, earthy palette and egalitarian vantage point sets it apart.
What does this have to do with women in the industrialized workforce? Although not explicitly evident, certain subtle details in and about the work give clues that this individual is in fact female. First off, her hips and legs, although covered by denim, have a definite feminine curve to them. This feature is not exaggerated or ultra-feminine, but when combined with the figure’s overall stature, the bodily ratios come much closer to a woman’s build than to a man’s. Also, we know that the piece was created in 1943 at the height of the Second World War, precisely the time that female participation in the industrialized workforce was at its height.
Armed with this knowledge, one could easily infer that this work is intended as a celebration of the woman laborer in wartime America. As stated above, although dark in palette, this piece is very optimistic, using positioning and lighting to highlight its subject and her hard work, turning her into an everyday hero. The idea of elevating and championing the female worker was common on the home front, but this piece stands out for its use of subtlety and understated yet straightforward beauty to accomplish this goal, a direct contradiction to the more propagandist styles usually employed.
Greg Crothers was a student in ART 3683: History of 20th Century Art in Fall 2010.