The Civilian Conservation Corps Art Program in the Smokies

Many visitors to the Smokies are familiar with the Civilian Conservation Corps. This Depression-era government program was one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s most popular and successful relief programs. Millions of young men were fed, clothed and housed, and in return they planted more than 3 billion trees, worked on soil conservation projects in the western United States, and helped construct hiking trails and other infrastructure in state and national parks. Their toil helped shape the modern state and national park system we enjoy today. The Smokies are no exception.

To find evidence of CCC handiwork, visitors today need look no further than the park headquarters building in Gatlinburg, numerous features along Highway 441, including various bridges, tunnels and the Rockefeller Memorial, not to mention the hundreds of miles of hiking trails in the park.

But what park visitors may not know is that many CCC camps were also assigned artists. From 1934 to 1937 the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture administered what was known as the CCC Art Project. The purpose of the project was to use artists to “secure a pictorial record of the life and achievements of these camps.” Artists were encouraged to work in any medium: painting, drawing, sculpting or wood-carving, and the best examples of their work would be sent to Washington, D.C., where they would eventually be placed in public buildings for the nation to enjoy.

Great Smoky Mountain National Park was fortunate to have at least three artists assigned to work in camps here. Charles Bowen, J.D. Chaffin and Irving Fromer were hired as wildlife student technicians and assigned to park naturalist Arthur Stupka. While most CCC artists in other parks produced large-scale works designed to be exhibited in public buildings once created, CCC artists in the Smokies were tasked with creating pen and ink drawings of flora and fauna to be used in interpretive products published by the park.Bowen’s legacy is lost to us. Nothing exists in the park archives to demonstrate his artistic contributions to the park. However, we know exactly what Chaffin and Fromer contributed.

The park archives at the Collections Preservation Center in Townsend, TN, houses 145 drawings by Chaffin and Fromer. Primarily pen and ink, but also some pencil, these drawings document the region's flora and fauna, as well as some of the construction projects carried out by the CCC during the summer of 1937. Drawings of hemlocks, mountain laurels, butterflies and turtles can be found alongside sketches of Alum Cave Trail and the loop over on Highway 441.

As is evident from their work, Chaffin and Fromer were both talented artists. Little may be known about Chaffin, but from his application we know that Fromer was a former student at the Art Institute of Chicago and had worked for years as a professional sculptor and painter. After his work for the CCC, Fromer moved west where he continued to work for the National Park Service as a diorama builder. In 1950 he moved to San Francisco and was a founding member of the San Francisco Graphic Art Workshop and later supported the Civil Rights Movement through the creation of posters promoting the movement’s message.

When we think of the CCC, we think of young men toiling with pick and ax, carving the face of the land for the benefit of the future. To that picture we can now add the image of men skillfully wielding pen and inkpot under the shade of a hemlock tree. Their contributions are no less important, and thanks to the archives at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in many ways are equally as indelible.