HARRISONBURG — A James Madison University art history professor has been granted a fellowship to research art that promoted racial integration from the 1930s to the 1950s.
John Ott will spend two months in residence at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. under the Paul Mellon Visiting Senior Fellowship.
Ott will be conducting research for his book, “Mixed Media: The Visual Cultures of Racial Integration, 1931-54.”
“The project generally looks at black and white artists looking at racial integration, both by producing images of integrated society and by working toward the integration of different organizations, both within and beyond the art world,” Ott said.
Ott, who has taught art history at JMU since 2003, started the project seven or eight years ago. His work has also been supported in the past by a postdoctoral fellowship from the Smithsonian and a National Endowment for the Humanities summer stipend.
He earned his bachelor’s degree in art history and English literature from Stanford and received his master’s and doctorate in art history from the University of California Los Angeles.
The National Gallery of Art’s Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts was established in 1979 as a “research institute that fosters study of the production, use and cultural meaning of art, artifacts, architecture, urbanism, photography and film worldwide from prehistoric times to the present,” according to its website.
During the fellowship from May to June, Ott will focus on studying murals commissioned by New Deal programs.
“There are 160 different murals that feature images of integrated communities in one way or another, including one here in Harrisonburg,” he said.
That mural, painted by artist William Calfee, is located in the U.S. District Courthouse at 116 N. Main St. in what used to be the lobby of a post office. The 5-foot-tall mural, titled “County Fair Trading Courthouse Square,” was completed in 1943 and was sponsored by the Federal Works Agency’s Section of Fine Arts.
“It has different scenes of daily life in Harrisonburg during wartime,” Ott said, “children playing, people coming and going to the market. … but included in the scene are a couple of African-American figures.”
The Harrisonburg mural will be featured in Ott’s book, along with several others in the country, including many at federal agency headquarters in D.C. The fellowship gives Ott access to federal archives that kept extensive records of the murals in addition to academic scholars.
“I’ll be able to focus on writing and I’ll be able to get feedback from the other scholars and residents, many of them experts in American and African-American art,” he said.
Other chapters of Ott’s book examine political graphics produced by pro-integration labor unions. The graphics were printed on posters, pamphlets and even comic books, he said.
Ott has also looked at paintings and other types of imagery produced by the military that promoted racial desegregation.
“The chapter on the military focuses on paintings done by African-American artist Jacob Lawrence, who served as a combat artist on the first integrated boat in the [Coast Guard],” he said.
Lawrence served during World War II on the USCGC Sea Cloud ship. Ott’s research into Lawrence’s wartime paintings includes the 1944 “Painting the Bilges.” The book also examines Pele DeLappe’s 1945 illustration from the National Union of Marine Cooks and Stewards’ “A Word to the New Men in Marine Cooks and Stewards Association, C.I.O.”
Ott hopes to have “Mixed Media: The Visual Cultures of Racial Integration, 1931-54” finished and published by an academic press by 2020.