Edith Hamlin: Gifted Local Artist Leaves Mark on Area

 

Part of the murals at Mission High School painted by Edith Hamlin, 1937-38

 

 

Edith Hamlin (1902-1990) was part of the California and Southwest art and cultural scene for half a century from 1925 to 1980. During her 55-year career, she was acknowledged as an outstanding muralist and painter. Her interest in the arts began at an early age and later she won a two-year scholarship to attend the San Francisco Art Institute. While there, she was one of four students chosen to paint a mural on the school’s walls and at age 22, she wanted to be a muralist.

 

Her paintings are in five museum collections including a painting of her husband, Maynard Dixon, in the California Museum in Oakland. Two murals remain in San Francisco at Coit Tower and Mission High School. Both were funded by government-supported art programs in the 1930s.

 

She had lived in New York for four years when she heard there might be work in San Francisco. She learned to drive a Model A and got home in time to get the job. As one of 26 muralists (four women) she was chosen for a pilot program at Coit Tower. Its success changed the way artists worked during the Depression. The artists were chosen because of their abilities not their need, and no socialist messages were allowed.

 

At Coit Tower, Edie learned fresco painting on the job and created a bucolic scene of two duck hunters and a frightened deer almost drawn to scale. They are not the flat wall decorations murals became in the late 40s. Here mural is not open to the public since it is on the second floor in a small space.

 

After I organized Coit Tower’s 50th Anniversary Celebration in 1984, Edie and I became good friends. During the next six years, I visited her studio often. It had a huge Hopi clay pot, several large woven baskets, and one of her large paintings of the Southwest rested on a tall easel.

 

Three years after she finished her Coit Tower mural, she was funded by the Works Project Administration (WPA) to make “architectural paintings” at Mission High School during 1937-38. She chose the location and themes. It was a prestigious mural that took a year to complete and she supervised four assistants. At that time, she was one of the city’s best artists.

 

“The WPA mural at Mission High launched my career as a muralist,” she said in an interview now in the Archives of American Art in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco.

 

At Mission High, both of the 8’ x 24’ panels are painted in tempera, a method of using egg yolks, minerals for colors and water. She drew inspiration from an Italian muralist in the 14th century, Giotto, who has been called one of the greatest painters. His frescos showed people who appeared realistic as though they had stepped out of nature. Several other panels he painted in egg tempera. Christian themes, fresco and tempera methods of painting continued through the Renaissance in the 16th century.

 

Like Giotto’s work, her figures were full-bodied and the colors remained bright by using tempera way of painting. Her mural’s themes were building of the Catholic Mission Dolores and what life was then. She wanted the students and other viewers to know that this is the oldest part of San Francisco and it was an international center even then.

 

During the project, her friend Maynard Dixon (1875-1946) offered his help painting 40 faces of Spanish conquistadors on horses, missionaries and indigenous Indian families.

 

Edie and Maynard shared their fascination with the Southwest and the Plains Indians’ way of life. “My eight years with Maynard were the best years of my life!” she said in her interview with the Archives of American Art.

 

While working on the WPA mural, Edie’s studio was a few doors from Maynard’s on Montgomery Street in the city’s small art colony. Maynard’s former wife, Dorothea Lange, the famous photographer, once had a studio on Montgomery Street at the end of the block.

 

Edith Hamlin, artist and muralist, is important to our understanding of the California and Southwest art and culture from 1920-1980. She was part of the experiment called the PWAP at Coit Tower and received many WPA mural commissions. Her involvement helped revitalize the arts during the 30s-40s. Maynard was of considerable importance to the arts and both benefited from their marriage. She has influenced generations of muralists and figurative painters in the San Francisco Bay Area.

 

 

 

 

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