ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 88 Florence Arquin
Life began for Florence Arquin during the influenza epidemic that devastated the world near the end of the World War, mowing down victims faster than could all the cannon on the European battlefields. She was a young girl in New York, just out of high school and entering upon a destiny that had been mapped out for her by her Russian parents, both from long lines of physicians and chemists.
At only 18, she was in the College of Physicians and Surgeons, having been tutored in entrance requirements by her father, and was doing special work in bacteriology and serology.
The epidemic struck and all the medical resources of New York, as well as every other city of America and Europe, were mustered to fight the deadly germs.
Florence Arquin worked alongside her older and moor experienced associates in the laboratories of Columbia University and Bellevue Hospital. Some of the victims that went into her test tubes were close friends — for she herself contracted the disease and experimented on her own germs.
At the height of her campaign against influenza, she came to Chicago — her very first time outside New York since the date of her birth, June 10, 1900. Like most New Yorkers born and bred, she thought the sun set a few miles west of the Hudson River, somewhere in the wilds of New Jersey, and she wept at the thought of banishment into the Cimmerian darkness along the banks of Lake Avernus, that is to say, Lake Michigan. Besides, less classically speaking, everybody in New York knew that Indians lurked still in the dark alleys of Chicago.
But despite her tears, she was transferred to the laboratories of the University of Chicago, where she continued her battle against influenza. Noses and throats of university students supplied material or her cultures.
From the University of Chicago and Prof. Jordan, she went to the laboratories of the Illinois Social Hygiene Clinic, and then to the laboratories of the Chicago Lying-in Hospital, where she continued her research in serology and also did the everyday work of the laboratory.
Three years of this and her health broke. She departed for Laguna Beach, Calif., to recuperate and, finding herself in a colony of artists, she suddenly remembered that she as a high school girl had fleeting ambitions to be an artist, though knowing well the futility of such ambitions in a girl destined for a life of medicine. She had won a medal in high school for a drawing — still extant!
To forget her test tubes, she took up brushes and paints, and was absorbed in her new recreation when a telegram called her back to Chicago. Her brother, an intern in the cook County Hospital had died suddenly of spinal meningitis contracted from a patient.
After the funeral, her mother, a chemist, put her foot down on Florence ever returning to a hospital and exposing herself to diseases. But what profession should she take up?
Could anybody make a living at art? The canny mother wanted to know.
Florence Arquin thought it was possible, if you went at it in a practical way. So she entered the school of the Art Institute and by patience, over a period of years with time out making a living, she eventually graduated in 1933 with a B.A.E. degree — a combination of art at the Institute and education at the University of Chicago.
Flossmor School engaged her to organize and direct an art course, and she stayed there for three years. Then she was asked to do the same for the Libertyville Township High School.
In the summer vacation period of 1936, Increase Robinson, director then of the Illinois (and Chicago) division of the Federal Art Project, asked her to come in for a few weeks to take over exhibitions for WPA and look after the easel project.
Florence Arquin has been there ever since. She is now officially “assistant to the state director (George Thorp, Mrs. Robinson’s successor) in charge of public relations program and the art teaching program” — a job as formidable as its name.
Well, that’s the life history to date of a thoroughly capable young woman. But what of Florence Arquin as an artist?
First work of hers that interested me was a still life of autumn flowers. The flowers were “intelligent;” they spoke from the canvas.
I found out why three or four years alter when a few days ago I interviewed Miss Arquin for the purpose of this article.
“What are you art alma?” I asked her.
She looked at me, distress in her eyes.
“I don’t know … I never thought of it that way … maybe I want to put into my paintings the life quality of things around us … In a flower, the force that pushes it up … Movement and vitality … To capture the living thing that has taken place … A Negro shack in Texas — what has happened there … In this lunchroom” (we were lunching at North Western Station) “The people who have eaten here, myriads of them, between trains, changing on their way across the continent … That’s what the Surrealists do … quality of life … Pulsations, rhythms of movement.” Then I understood what I had felt in Florence Arquin’s flowers.
“Psychologist,” I asked her, “in your medical days?”
Not consciously so, she replied, but sometimes the best philosophers are those who don’t know they’re working at it.
Her work for the federal project has been an intensely interesting experience, in the life of a woman who has been a doctor and a teacher. And, I insist, a psychologist.
When she was head of the easel division of WPA, she had 130 artists reporting to her with their work — each a personality sharply etched in her consciousness, each a “problem” — each a “patient” or a “pupil,” each a “friend.” She heard the stories of their struggles, advised sympathetically — or when necessary, took “advice” in good part.
She looks beyond the project into the future of the individual artists, into the future of art in America.
“Artists and public must get together … Artists as a rule are fond of wearing halos, of being mysterious, of feeling themselves apart from humdrum humanity … The American people are suspicious of artists, feel that they are somehow a bit wicked, that they are ‘Bohemians’ in the sense of Trilby and of Murger … The artist must sacrifice his halo and become an integral member of the social structure … The public must accept the artist as a fellow being as much interested in the general welfare as the man who makes better-looking teacups and tumblers that you now see in the 10-cent store … A little painting on your wall must become as much accepted as a necessity as a book or magazine — and the public must learn to discriminate in the selecting of it. The artist must help in the process of education, not as a professor, but as a friend and next-door neighbor.”
Break down the barrier between the artist and the public, the very experienced and very intelligent Florence Arquin believes, and all will be well with art.
BULLETIN: With the above in type comes last-minute information by way of telephone that Miss Arquin has joined the staff of the Art Institute of Chicago, starting July 1. She will do special educational work in connection with the museum, not the school. She resigns from the Federal Project to take effect next week.