Slayton: New Deal Art In Vermont

Oct 4, 2018

Bennington Museum’s current exhibition of New Deal art is a fine collection of prints, photographs and paintings from the 1930s – including several paintings by my father, Ronald A. Slayton.

He and his friend Francis Colburn lived in Burlington during the '30s and painted for the Works Progress Administration — the WPA. Both long gone, they’re now regarded as important artists of that period.

This was the time of the Great Depression, and President Franklin Roosevelt had created the WPA to help the country pull itself out of that economic quagmire. Included was a program that embodied the radical idea of paying artists to create art. My dad signed up, and began painting every day.

The Bennington Museum show, entitled “Crash to Creativity, the New Deal in Vermont,” captures that era beautifully. And it includes several paintings I grew up with — some I hadn’t seen for years.

As a boy, my father was — well, my father. I didn’t think of him as an important artist.

But, as the Bennington Museum show makes clear, he was. His paintings from that period depict the realities of the time, as seen through the eyes of a youthful idealist who used his art to protest injustice, war, and human exploitation.

However, one of my favorites, “Spring Planting,” strikes a different note. It’s the closely focused image of a pair of rough boots and strong hands, carefully depositing, one by one, a row of bean seeds in the newly cultivated earth. It’s an image of strength and optimism — both qualities that fascinated and characterized my father.

His passion for art flowered again later in his life in the many lyrical watercolors he created, which were celebrated in a show at Montpelier’s Wood Art Gallery earlier this year. Thanks to his loyal friend, Bobby Gosh of Brookfield, he has been recognized in a series of retrospective exhibitions.

The current show of New Deal art in Bennington is further recognition of his work and life as well as a tribute to many other artists of that time, the important works they created — and the visionary government program that paid them to create a lasting artistic legacy.

The exhibit will continue through November fourth.