Iowa WPA Artist Robert Tabor
A Depression-era Painter from the Midwest / page 2

by Roy R. Behrens
Morris Udall—What’s the difference between a pigeon and an Iowa farmer? A pigeon can still make a deposit on a tractor. Above (top) Robert Tabor, Main Street, c1934. In the year following the completion of Vendue, Tabor created this painting about Midwestern small town daily life. Like Vendue, it tells a story: It depicts the daily ritual of retired men in overalls sitting on the steps of the Farmer’s State Bank in Independence, Iowa, gawking at passersby. Given the triad of figures in the left half of the painting—in which an older woman looks back in utter disbelief at a young woman wearing a daring bra-less sun dress—as well as the painting’s title, Tabor was undoubtedly calling up memories of the then-famous book about small town hypocrisy, Sinclair Lewis’ scandalous novel, Main Street, first published in 1920. (Interestly, until he was fired, Lewis had earlier worked for the Waterloo Courier, in Waterloo, Iowa, about 20 miles west of Independence.) (bottom) Robert Tabor, The Librarian, date unknown. The person behind the desk in this painting is the artist’s sister, Neva Tabor, who was the town librarian for many years. Later, Tabor’s daughter Ruth was the librarian at the nearby town of Oelwein, Iowa.
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“October. This is one of the peculiarly dangerous months to speculate in stocks. The others are July, January, September, April, November, May, March, June, December, August and February.”
Reproduced below are two paintings by self-trained Iowa photographer and artist Robert Tabor (1882-1972), who in 1933 was commissioned by the WPA or Works Projects Administration (for which Grant Wood was a regional director) to produce a painting for government use. The result was a depiction of a Depression-era farm auction, titled Vendue (current whereabouts unknown). To return to the full introductory article on this and Tabor’s other work, click here.—RB.WPA.htmlshapeimage_9_link_0
Roy R. Behrens is a writer, designer, and professor of art at the University of Northern Iowa, where he teaches graphic design and design history. He recently designed a new, major anthology on Marguerite Wildenhain and the Bauhaus: An Eyewitness Anthology (Dean and Geraldine Schwarz, eds., 2007), and three well-known books on the historic involvement of artists in natural and military camouflage: FALSE COLORS: Art, Design and Modern Camouflage (2002); CAMOUPEDIA: A Compendium of Research on Art, Architecture and Camouflage (2009); and SHIP SHAPE: A Dazzle Camouflage Sourcebook (2012). In 2003, he was a nominee for the National Design Awards, sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, and in 2009, he received the Distinguished Scholar Award from the University of Northern Iowa. Contact: RB [at]
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