The dust storms that ravaged the Southern Great Plains of the United States during the 1930s created an environmental catastrophe that would affect the lives of thousands. Artists from around the country both during and after the storms traveled to the region to capture the devastation, making the Dust Bowl a significant chapter of 20th-century American art.
American Art During The Wheat Boom
Throughout his early career, Joe Jones was a leading artist in the “Midwestern Regionalist” American art movement. This American art form began to gain popularity during the Great Depression era and focused on capturing scenes of rural life in the American Midwest.
As wheat farming became more and more widespread throughout the Southern Plains during the 1920s, modest small-scale wheat farming as shown in Jones’ painting was replaced by large-scale operations.
These large farms were often not owned by people living on the plains themselves. They were often owned by “suitcase farmers” from cities like Chicago that wanted to cash in on the soaring global demand for wheat following the end of World War 1.
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Advancements in farming machinery, like improvements of the plow and tractor, contributed to more wheat being planted across the region than ever before. Farmers were planting more crops and making more money than they ever could have envisioned. With no environmental government oversight or regulation, they had no reason to stop planting.
As this wheat was planted across the region, the natural grasses that held the soil down were gradually torn out. The constant plowing of the soils also created topsoil that was of chalky consistency. With no natural vegetation to provide resistance to heavy winds and hold the chalky topsoil down, dust storms began to become more frequent throughout the region.
The wheat frenzy of the 1910s and ’20s created startling amounts of wealth for many Plains wheat farmers, but it also laid the groundwork for a catastrophe that would rob the region’s population of its livelihood for nearly a decade.
The Dust Storms
Mike Sevick’s painting captures the horror of an incoming storm in the Dust Bowl. When the storms first began to spread across the region during the early 1930s, many thought they were apocalyptic, divine punishment from God. Anyone caught outside would be blinded and hit by the piercing waves of wind and dust.
Prominent folk singer Woody Guthrie, who was in the region during the storms, sums up the feeling of people experiencing the first dust storms in “The Great Dust Storm:”
From Oklahoma City to the Arizona line
Dakota and Nebraska to the lazy Rio Grande
It fell across our city like a curtain of black rolled down
We thought it was our judgment, we thought it was our doom
Thousands of livestock animals would be killed during these storms, as well as some of the plains people themselves, as the storms could cause “dust pneumonia” when an abundance of dust filled the lungs.
Drought In The Plains
James E. Allen was a prominent figure in the Social Realist American Art movement during the Great Depression era. Allen captures the plight of the Plains farmer in Prayer for Rain.
Not only did the people of the plains have to live with apocalyptic dust storms, but the region happened to also experience a severe drought throughout the decade. Plains farmers were not only ravaged by the rapid decline of crop prices due to the country’s economic climate during the Great Depression but now they couldn’t even harvest crops to make up for their losses.
The lack of rainfall only made the increasingly more common dust storms throughout the decade worse, as the already depleted topsoil’s consistency was made even drier and dustier. Rain became a daily prayer for those living on the plains, though the region would not see anything close to above-average annual rainfall until 1941.
The Devastation Of The Region
Mervin Jules was an American artist who sought to capture the plights of people across the country during the Great Depression. Jules’ painting captures an abandoned plains farm, an all-too-common scene in the region during the 1930s.
Jules was known especially for his use of ironic satire and social commentary throughout his art. The tractor in the foreground of the painting shows the irony of the mechanization of wheat farming in the plains. Something that was supposed to bring so much wealth to its owners now laid covered in dust with no fields left to plow. The plains environment was pushed past its limits, and now had nothing left to give the people who depended on it.
The Dust Bowl Household
As the storms became more intense and frequent, dust became an inescapable part of living in a Dust Bowl household. Dust would find its way through every doorway, window, and crevice. Silverware, dishes, and tables would be covered, with many waking up after a storm to their pillow being the only thing in their house not caked with dust.
The dust became more than a continual routine of seeking shelter from incoming storms, it became an inescapable part of daily life.
Leaving The Dust Bowl
By the mid-1930s, the economic hardship of the Great Depression, the lack of crop yields from the drought, and the psychological horror of the dust storms made many people leave the region. They mostly traveled to the West Coast, namely California, looking for work.
Unfortunately for these migrants, the rest of the country also found itself in the hardship of the Great Depression, and there was very little employment available. There was widespread discrimination and prejudice against the influx of Dust Bowlers, with many of them spending the rest of the decade in migrant camps with horrid conditions.
Those Who Stayed
In PH-81, Clyfford Still captures the agony of those who stayed in the Plains. Throughout the 1930s communities began to unravel as people left in hope for a better future elsewhere. The combination of storms, the lack of crop yields, and the absence of economic opportunity created a hopeless, destitute situation for those living in the plains. Those that stayed felt their livelihoods were constantly being destroyed and withered down by all sides of the deteriorating conditions of the region.
While some communities became increasingly isolated, many communities became even more tight-knit. The bond between many of the Dust Bowlers who stayed in the region became stronger as community members increasingly relied on each other to survive and remain level-headed amongst all the hardship of the decade.
The New Deal
Alexandre Hogue is widely considered the quintessential American artist of the Dust Bowl. In Drouth Survivors Hogue sought to capture the devastation of the drought in the plains. This painting caused controversy throughout the American art community, as some people of the region were offended by this grim depiction of the plains.
Many people living in the plains, especially government officials, rejected these scenes of devastation because they made the region appear victimized and destitute. Members of the Dalhart, Texas Chamber of Commerce attempted to buy the painting and burn it to keep it out of American art galleries and other forms of media, but were ultimately unsuccessful.
In Hogue’s painting the cattle, who are not native to the plains environment, are lying dead, while the animals that are native to the plains are very much alive. While everything Americans brought into the plains was now lying lifeless in the dust, the natural order of the plains was alive and well. Many have speculated that the barbed wire “C.S.” next to the tractor in the painting was meant as a reference to the New Deal conservation service programs that were sweeping throughout the Great Plains at the time.
After the worst of the dust storms in 1935, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration brought massive aid programs to the Dust Bowl region as part of the New Deal. President Roosevelt rolled out many environmental programs, such as soil conservation efforts and tree planting projects that aimed to lessen the severity of the storms throughout the region. There were also programs that aimed to help the people of the plains themselves, such as the resettlement of farmers onto more productive land and aid to migrant families.
Instead of only looking for short-term solutions to the Dust Bowl, President Roosevelt sought to fundamentally change the practices of the region. His administration not only lessened the severity of dust storms and provided aid to poverty-stricken communities; it created a breadth of research that would be used to prevent potential future Dust Bowls.
Great Plains Optimism
This painting by Hogue captures the unraveling of the American homestead. The man-made fences that once represented the American conquering of the untouched Great Plains wilderness, now appear withered away by the superior forces of nature. Both human footsteps and vehicle tracks are seen in the foreground, signifying an exodus from the farm.
While Hogue depicts a gloomy, apocalyptic scene, the sun shining on top of the clouds of dust perhaps symbolizes the hope the people of the plains clung to. It represents the optimism and positivity the plains people were able to find within themselves during a time when there was none to be found around them. Hogue’s foreground of desolation and destruction is outshined by the background of a brighter future, a better life when the storms and drought would finally leave the plains.
The Dust Bowl And Its Legacy In American Art
The artists who captured the Dust Bowl region both during the 1930s and afterward captured a chapter of American history that is too often lost underneath the Great Depression and other events of the period. Instead of vilifying the people and farming practices of the region, the artists instead focused on showing the scope of the devastation that those living in the Dust Bowl faced in their everyday lives.
This American art made people realize the reality of what was happening in the plains. They helped shift the rhetoric of the Dust Bowl from blame to empathy, not just by showing devastated landscapes, but also by showing the extraordinary strength of the people who were somehow surviving amongst all the devastation.
The dust storms of the 1930s were not only the greatest American environmental catastrophe of the 20th century, but they were also a testament to the extraordinary strength and resilience of ordinary American people. While the Dust Bowl catastrophe should undoubtedly be used as a warning against using the environment as a limitless resource in the pursuit of profit, the prolific work of the Dust Bowl artists also helps ensure that both the strength and suffering of those who lived in the region won’t be lost to history.