Family research adds to our knowledge of Dr. George Washington Carver portrait
When we blogged about the intriguing Psycho Beautigraph etching of Dr. George Washington Carver created by African American artist Felix Benjamin Gaines, we admitted we didn’t know much about the artist. We knew that Gaines (1908–1991) had copyrighted the Carver etching in 1946, but turned to our readers to ask if anyone knew more about the artist. Luckily, some of our readers happened to be Gaines family members!
One of Gaines's daughters and a granddaughter contacted us soon after the blog appeared, and other relatives also got in touch. Through them, we learned Gaines's full name—Felix Benjamin Duncan Gaines—and something about his schooling and his participation in the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Art Project during the Depression. The WPA provided funds to build an African American community center that offered facilities for black people in Selma, Alabama, during segregation. The center also featured two murals painted by Gaines that depicted black farmers of the old and new South. In about 1992, the murals were moved to the Old Depot Museum, the Selma-Dallas County Museum of History and Archives, housed in a former Louisville and Nashville railroad station, where they can be seen today.
Ada Gaines Johnson and her daughter Wanda Dale provided a significant amount of information, some based on research in copyright records. They sent images of two additional Gaines portraits, each centered against a spider's web: "The Web of Freedom: John Fitzgerald Kennedy," and "Wo-man. A Web Beauty. A Rib Bone," an idealized portrait head of a blonde female. They also provided a copy of Gaines's detailed map of Alabama showing the proliferation of peanut and sweet potato products developed by Dr. Carver. The most interesting-sounding (and still elusive) of his prints is one copyrighted in 1953 under the title "Cigger-Trigger. (Bed smoker)." Both the family and the museum would love to find this image!
For his portraits and maps, Gaines made complex drawings with many fine lines and precise details. The WPA murals, made earlier in his career, are on a much larger scale. They depict the role of the black sharecropper in the cotton economy. Farmers would see themselves depicted on the walls of the community center built for them. These murals are mentioned on pages 14–15 in the National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation Form nomination for buildings associated with the Civil Rights Movement in Selma.
Felix Benjamin Duncan Gaines is an intriguing figure whose prints—and murals—are worthy of further examination. We are so grateful to the family for contacting us after reading the first blog post! We've learned a lot more about this artist, and the research continues.
Helena E. Wright is a curator in the Division of Culture and the Arts.