Martina Gangle Curl: Peoples art and the mothering of humanity

PORTLAND, Ore. — In the eight years since Portland artist Martina Gangle Curl passed away at age 88, her stature has steadily risen, spurred by a growing interest in her sometimes heroic, but always loving depiction of ordinary working people, the American Indians, pioneers and workers who created a unique culture in the Pacific Northwest.

Just before Christmas, the Labor Arts Forum (LAF), a project of the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission, opened an exhibition at the Multnomah County Library in downtown Portland. It focused on the shipbuilding industry that sprang up in Portland and across the Columbia River in Vancouver, Washington during World War II. Many hundreds of Liberty Ships and Victory ships were produced at these yards operated by the Kaiser corporation, all now closed.

Martina Gangle was one of hundreds of women who worked in Kaiser’s Swan Island shipyard during the war. In the exhibition her leather welder’s jacket was displayed in a glass case and beside it a pencil self-portrait. Drawn in bold lines, she gazes back with the frank expression of an independent and fearless woman, a home-front fighter against Hitler fascism.

A large crowd gathered in the exhibition hall Dec. 18 to honor the shipyard workers, including Chauncey Del French whose memoir, “Waging War on the Home Front,” chronicles those years.



Power of working class women

Several other Kaiser shipyard workers were present, among them Gale Adams, the first woman overhead crane operator west of the Mississippi.

“I wasn’t a ‘Rosie the Riveter’ but I was doing my best for the war effort,” she told the World. “I worked in the yard for nearly four years. I remember the day we launched the first Liberty ship. Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt was there to christen it. It slid down the keel way into the middle of the river and sank like a rock!” She laughed merrily at the memory.

“A couple of welds gave out. We brought it back up, patched the leaks and off it sailed to war. I later became a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt.”

Also in the crowd was Hank Curl, Martina’s widower. They married in 1946. He is a former National Maritime Union seafarer, who sailed in the Pacific theater aboard a Victory ship built at the Portland yard. Now 91, Curl is an honored pioneer of the Oregon labor movement, still active in all the progressive movements in the Portland area. Promoting awareness and appreciation of Martina’s art, including epic murals she painted while serving with the Roosevelt-era Federal Art Project, takes up much of his time when he isn’t out at plant gates and campuses distributing the People’s Weekly World.



Preserving WPA art

David Milholland, Labor Arts Forum project director, told the crowd the aim is to preserve and popularize a side of labor’s heritage that is neglected or even suppressed. “We are working to develop a full inventory of the WPA [Works Progress Adminstration] art in the state. Throughout Oregon there were wonderful projects. This is an opportunity to learn about the literary, artistic, and music heritage of our state.”

Trisha Kauffman is the director of the Museum of People’s Art in Bay City on the Oregon coast. It features works by Martina and her collaborators, Arthur and Albert Runquist, all WPA artists. Kauffman said her mission in life is to promote their art, which celebrates the struggles of working people.

“It’s so exciting to see all of it together here,” she told the World. “The art, the photographs, the welders’ helmets and torches, Martina’s jacket. She was an original Rosie the Riveter.”

Displayed was a full-page ad in the Sept. 20, 1942 Oregon Journal with the banner headline, “10,000 Shipyard Workers Wanted at Swan Island, Vancouver, Oregon Ship.” The wage scale was 88 cents an hour for laborers, 95 cents for helpers and $1.20 an hour for journeymen.

The ship industry attracted thousands of jobless workers, including African Americans who flocked to Portland. And it opened the door for women to enter the workforce as basic industrial workers. Martina had been an impoverished migrant farm worker and domestic worker, who worked her way through the Portland Museum Art School.

One day while walking to school she ran into a demonstration demanding freedom for Tom Mooney, serving a life term on trumped-up terrorism charges. It was organized by the Communist Party of Oregon. She read the leaflet they were distributing and soon she joined the party and was assigned to a club of artists and intellectuals that included artist Arthur Runquist.

She worked an exhausting schedule to support herself and her son, David, while also attending classes at the Museum school.



Art and activism

The WPA’s Federal Art Project came as a magnificent opportunity to earn a living while creating wonderful works of art.

So began a lifelong career of both artistic creativity and militant activism. She was arrested with other women in the late 1930s, protesting the export of scrap metal to Japan, knowing it would be used to fuel the Japanese imperial war machine. In 1975, she and her close friend, Julia Ruutila, were arrested during a sit-in protesting rate hikes by Portland Power & Light. She became a beloved champion of Oregon farm workers’ struggle for union rights. She also marched for civil rights, against the blockade of Cuba and against the Vietnam war.

Over the years she created a body of art that reflected these humanist and socialist values. Together with Arthur Runquist, she painted a WPA mural for a high school in Pendleton, Ore. It is a work in two panels, one celebrating the culture of the Umatilla Indians and the other a cattle roundup honoring the hard toil of cowboys. She was one of 200 WPA artists who provided murals, paintings, watercolors, and wood carvings for one of WPA’s greatest masterpieces, Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood. She also did a powerful WPA mural, “The Columbia River Pioneer Migration,” for the Rose City Park Elementary School in Portland.

It is striking that an artist with such a fundamental critique of existing society infuses her work with so much optimism. Her work affirms life amid the misery of capitalist war, racism and greed. The message in her art is “a different world is possible.” And women, starting with pioneer women, are often central to her epic compositions.



Becoming a Communist

A lavishly illustrated full-color brochure of her work titled, “Martina Gangle Curl: People’s Art and the Mothering of Humanity*,” speaks of her vision. The author, Portland State University Professor David A Horowitz, writes that joining the Communist Party was “a natural outgrowth” of her life experience as a worker and an artist. She was attracted by the Party’s popular front strategy, he explains, “a broad anti-fascist coalition emphasizing humanist and democratic values like world peace, labor solidarity, racial tolerance and liberal reform.”

He continues, “In matters of culture, the Front celebrated the dignity and beauty of proletarian art forms … Martina aligned herself with the communists because she hoped that socialism could turn her dreams of a better society into practical reality.”



Real art, real change

A few days after the exhibition, we drove down to Bay City to see the Museum of People’s Art housed in a lovely old storefront called ArtSpace on Highway 101.

Trisha Kauffman greeted us and led us on a tour of the museum, which features the art of the Runquist brothers and Martina as part of its permanent collection. Kauffman and her husband Craig have operated the museum for 17 years. It also offers delicious gourmet food at reasonable prices at the gallery’s restaurant. We missed by only a few days a full-scale exhibition titled “People’s Art in theRoosevelt Era, 1933-1945.”

But Kauffman led us into a room devoted to Runquist and other people’s artists. One big Runquist canvas depicts two workers with missing arms and legs, lying dead from industrial accidents.

“I love this art because it is so real. I love it because I can live it,” she said. “It’s life and life is important.”

Martina Gangle Curl and Arthur Runquist were blacklisted during the Cold War because of their political views, she said. “Thugs beat Arthur up. They injured his hand so badly doctors thought they would have to amputate. He and Martina were working on the Pendleton murals at the time. Luckily, his hand was saved.

“They sacrificed so much during the war to defeat Hitler and then they were treated as enemies. So often communism is equated with ‘unpatriotic.’ But Martina was totally patriotic.”

Kauffman showed me a tiny thumbnail pencil sketch titled “The Gathering of the People,” of working people in a circle, their arms around each other. “That’s the Martina I knew, showing humanity joined together in unity. I want other people to know her, a strong-willed, headstrong woman. She had to be powerful. She was a welder.”

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