Monday, November 29, 2010

A Pitman Painter in the Family

As I was walking down 47th Street recently, I came to a halt in front of a poster depicting coal miners holding paintings and brushes. The Pitmen Painters by Lee Hall is playing just two blocks from our apartment through December 12th. I had to go see it.

Cup of the Day #49
 by Gwyneth Leech 2009
India in on white paper cup

The play is funny, and melancholy, the thick Northumberland accents a little hard on American ears. A group of miners learn to paint. It changes their lives, but does not change where they live. They remain rooted in their small mining community and make art about it for the rest of their lives.

One character is a young man, unemployed, unfit for the mine for some reason. He is the only character to break away from the mining world. He joins up, marches off to the second World War, and exits the frame of the play.

This echoes uncannily my grandfather's tale. Michael J. Gallagher, born in 1898, was a sickly boy in a family of Irish Pitmen in Scranton PA and he was never employed in the mines. He joins up for WW1, ships out - and contracts TB at boot camp. Fortunately for me - and his other descendants - the story doesn't end there. He is sent to a sanatorium to convalesce. He draws to amuse himself and a doctor is so impressed with his talent that he gives him all the materials he needs and recommends art school.

Coal Miners 1936
by Michael Gallagher
India ink and China white
7 x 9 inches

Mike recovers fully, moves to New York City, works as a bell hop and takes etching classes at the Art Students League. From there he goes to Philadelphia to the School of Industrial Arts, and meets Katherine McCallum - a fellow art student who came from Bloomsburg PA, just over the mountain from Scranton. They marry, three children follow. Louise Leech, the eldest daughter (my mother) grows up to be an artist too.

Mike never returns to Scranton and he makes his way as a print illustrator whose principal medium is wood engraving. His spots appeared in the New Yorker and other magazine for years. At a time of great hardship for the family, during the Depression of the 1930s, Mike is offered the job of technical director of the Philadelphia Printmaking branch of the WPA art project. This is a financial lifeline and a creative boon, leading him to produce a striking series of dark and haunted images in wood-engravings and in a new technique he develops with Herbert Mesibov and Dox Thrash; The Carborundum process. His subject of choice - the coal mining life of his youth. Toiling miners below ground, miners trudging home at nightfall against a backdrop of breakers and slag heaps, mine explosions and brief cheerful respites in prints such as Saturday Evening, where lovers are out walking at sunset, create a vivid evocation of that now-vanished world.

Black Country, By Michal J. Gallagher
wood-engraving on paper, 1941
11 x 13 inches
WPA Art collection

 My favorite print is the Coal Miner's Kitchen. To one side, a blackened miner is washing at the sink, exhausted at the end of the shift. On a cast-iron stove in the foreground the coffee pot is set to boil by the shadowy miner's wife. A deep-seated memory from his childhood.

So it was possible to take the man out of the coal mine town, but it seems, nothing could take the coal mine town out of him.

Sunday Afternoon (also titled Sunday Evening), 
By Michael J.  Gallagher, 1936
8 x 11 inches
Photo: Susan Teller Gallery, NYC

In her recent review of the play, Roberta Smith wrote, "“The Pitmen Painters” was written in part to protest cuts in arts endowments in Britain. Its lesson is that in looking at art and articulating our responses, we find essential parts of ourselves that enable us to lead happier, fuller lives and, yes, probably be better citizens. That is something that no nation can afford to ignore."

The legacy of that brief shining moment of unprecedented arts funding in the USA which was the WPA art project of the 1930s lives on in museums and libraries around the country. I have learned that some 16 of my grandfather's WPA prints are in the permanent collection of the Metropolitain Museum here in New York City. I plan to make an appointment to see them.


  1. What a wonderful story. Thanks for sharing it and the art.

  2. A heartfelt and knowledgeable account. Thank you!

  3. A warm reminder of the beauty of our Granfather's work, and an apt reminder of how vital arts funding is. Not just for the individual artist, but also for the enrichment and growth of our national culture.

  4. Gyneth, your grandfather's love of art and creativity passed to your mother and to you. I am so impressed that you have a grandfather with work in the collection at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC. Thank you for sharing images of his work and for sharing this wonderful true story with so much personal history.

  5. Stunning work and all around interesting post.

    We do miss the big city, 'cause it doesn't get better than what you just posted out here.


  6. Marthabeth@verizon.netDecember 1, 2010 at 9:41 AM

    Beautifully, simply written Gwyneth. and the art images touch my heart all over again. Martha