CR Muse: The Murals of Maxine Albro

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This is CR Muse, a series dedicated to the remembrance of important artists and idea-makers from our past who have shaped culture as we know it today. From traditional creators to those of conceptual thought, we celebrate these women known not only for their work but their confident, eccentric style as well.

In the 1930s, the U.S. government’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) established the Federal Art Project to create work for artists during the Great Depression. Some of America’s greatest painters—including Jackson Pollack and Lee Krasner—found work through the program. Maxine Albro, known for her murals and frescos, was also one of these artists. Her pieces often depicted people at work, at rest, and simply living, her work was boldly colored but simple in construction with hard outlines.

Her birth year has been debated, though it was likely 1903. What is known for sure is that Albro was born in Iowa, but her family moved to California when she was quite young. After graduating from high school, she moved to San Francisco and worked as a commercial artist until she could afford tuition money. By 1923, she was studying at the California School of Fine Arts and would go on to spend a semester in New York at the Art Students League and a year in Paris at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. After arriving home from Paris, Albro headed to Mexico to learn frescos under Diego Rivera. Though she never directly studied under him (she worked with his assistant, Pablo O’Higgins), she was able to watch Rivera paint.

Throughout the 1930s, Albro enjoyed a steady career working on commissions for the WPA’s Federal Art Project, including the fresco “California Agriculture“ (1933) at Coit Tower in San Francisco and a mosaic (her first) for San Francisco State University’s Hall of Natural Science. It was smooth sailing until 1935, when she began working on a mural for the Ebell Women’s Club in Los Angeles. The piece featured nudes, which were considered obscene at the time. Though art critics came to her defense, the piece was ultimately destroyed.

What’s particularly interesting about Albro is that almost everything written about her online is about her work rather than her. From gallery websites to encyclopedias, the focus of her digital biography is very much on her career. Of course, there are traces of her personal life, like her various moves and her marriage, but for the most part, Albro’s education and subsequent career are the most important talking points of her life. But is there anything wrong with the fact that Albro’s narrative is largely about her accomplishments? It may not make for a dramatic story, but it is one in which the protagonist sets a goal and achieves it.

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