Alma Sewing by Francis Criss



Critics consider Alma Sewing Criss’ most ambitious and striking work. The painting may be interpreted as both a quintessential 1930s image–in its celebration of the artist as worker–as well as a personal manifesto. Produced during Criss’ employment with the New York City mural division of the Works Progress Administration, ‘Alma Sewing’ refers to his artistic practice through a self-portrait cleverly positioned in the lower half of the seamstress’s work lamp. While ‘Alma’, the African American woman, with her beautifully delineated features and powerful presence, may be seen as the artist’s model, Criss presents her as a skilled professional, surrounded by her own models–the mannequin and paper doll–and other tools of her trade. As a deeply felt presentation of quiet labor, the painting expresses Criss’ philosophical view of himself as a ‘poet-artist who restructures reality’.

What sort of diversity discussions might this painting inspire? Could the sculpture depicting strikers by Berta Margoulies, located just to the right of the painting, offer a connection with regard to occupations, opportunities, and rights of the common laborer?

Several photos in the Peter Sekaer exhibit, Signs of Life, (located on the lower floor of the High) also have captured the everyday man at work (see photo above: Family Shelling Pecans, Austin, texas, 1939). Do you have some ideas for prompts for student discussion? Details to bring out about the artist and/or his technique? Ideas to connect the history behind the use of artists in Roosevelt’s New Deal government agencies such as the Work Progress Program?


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