Volume 76, Number 18 | September 20 - 26, 2006


Frances Avery, muralist for the W.P.A., dies at 96

By Roslyn Kramer

Frances Avery, one of the few surviving artists who created artwork for the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, died recently at her home on Horatio St. She was 96.

“She was a very sweet person,” said Robert Bunkin, a teacher at Parsons School of Design at New School University who was active in the National Society of Mural Painters with Avery. “A very sweet and lively person, with a great memory,” he added, although she was in her 80s when he met her.

Born in Canada, she attended art school in Michigan before moving to New York City with her mother.

She was engrossed in the New York City art scene from her first days at the Art Students League, where her instructors included Thomas Hart Benton, who taught her mural painting. She remained a lifetime member of the League. She also studied fresco painting with Lewis Roth at the American Artists School.

In 1933 she studied at the Workers School on 14th St., where Diego Rivera was at work on fresco panels that were possibly part of his politically explosive Rockefeller Center fresco, which Nelson Rockefeller had commissioned but then destroyed feeling they were insufficiently respectful of capitalism.

Rivera was a colossus and Avery knew it. She included a homage to him in her best-known work, a mural depicting the history of obstetrics as it progressed from primitive child-birthing practices to ancient and medieval midwifery, culminating in scientific, safe childbirth. The mural’s centerpiece was an enormous surgical-gloved hand above the motto, “Not Force But Skill.” This huge hand was her salute to Rivera’s brawny art.

“The History of Obstetrics” was intended for a physician’s library at Harlem Hospital. She worked on the mural cycle for three years in her Greenwich Village studio, after which the murals were installed, but unfortunately not permanently. Having received a small inheritance, Avery took off for Europe with the promise from the W.P.A. that the 6-foot-high murals would be exhibited in the Health Pavilion of the 1939 World’s Fair before their final placement in the doctors’ library. But when she returned six months later, not only were her murals not shown at the World’s Fair, they had disappeared entirely.

After returning from Europe, she married James Penney, also an artist. The marriage ended in divorce.

She produced three works for the Public Works Art Project: “Clinic,” destined for Fordham Hospital, “English Clash” for a public school, and “Reading Room” for a public library.

Avery was a longtime art professor at Adelphi University. Her work appeared in several group shows, including one by The New York Society of Women Artists in 1994, held at Lever House. She also exhibited at the Educational Alliance and the 41 Union Square Open Studios. She won awards from the National Association of Women Artists and from the Museum of Modern Art in its 1942 exhibit “Images of Freedom.” Avery also exhibited at the Whitney Museum — possibly in its early years on Eighth St. She took up photography, studying with Berenice Abbott and getting published in photography magazines.

She continued living a hectic 24/7 artist’s life, going to galleries and hanging out in the Cedar Tavern on University Pl. in its heyday, with Jackson Pollock and Ad Reinhardt. Her work was shown again, perhaps for the last time, in “Landmarks and Legacies: Selected Works by Artists of the W.P.A.” — a show by the New York Equity Association in June 1999.

Westbeth resident Nan Tandy, a friend, said that Avery was “a wonderful artist and wonderful friend who liked to talk, but not about herself.” Their 20-year age difference never mattered: “She loved clothes and she always looked real cute and well put together, from her hat to her shoes, but not Upper East Side,” Tandy noted.

“She turned everything into an art experience,” said Jane Zweifler, another friend. “Every morning she woke up and looked out the window for inspiration. She was never bored; her entire environment was food for art.”

She is survived by a son, James Avery Penney, of Greenwich Village.

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