Bill Moeller Commentary: Searching For Lost Artists of the Great Depression Era


In one of the columns I started to write — prior to my taking a rest from 15 years of writing columns for newspapers — I touched on the topic of artists who found their own way of dealing with the destructive early years of what became known as The Great Depression of the 1930s.

I called them “sidewalk artists” for lack of any better title because, essentially, that’s what they were. They would set up an easel on the sidewalk of a business district in a reasonably large city, take their pallet out of a container at their feet, set up a collapsible easel and begin painting a picture that usually emerged from their memory or imagination.

Most of them were men. It wasn’t “proper” for a lady to work on the streets in those days. How things have changed.

I remember as a child being in downtown Tacoma, watching just such performances. Sometimes, the artist might even be on the other side of the display window of a department store such as Rhodes, especially if it was raining.

When through, he (and it was always a “he” that I saw doing this) would place the still-wet painting into a frame — approximately 9 inches by 21 and a half inches in size — and sell it to an eager buyer who had been watching the entire procedure. Or was it a performance?

I figured I’d add more information when I was able to find some, and therein lies the problem — there just doesn’t seem to be any history of them. I cannot find anything written about the subject and classy art centers don’t seem to want to admit that such procedures even existed.

Either that or it’s beneath the dignity of art lovers to admit that it is “art.” This is from people who practically swooned when one artist created a sensation by painting a picture that consisted of nothing more than a large can of Campbell’s soup.

This might also be compared to the successful artist who dribbled paint onto a canvas on the floor of his garage and made a fortune out of that. A person could probably guess the artists that I wanted to write about probably limited their collapsible moving studios to cities and towns on the west side of the Cascade mountains, and I know that they didn’t confine themselves to just the larger metropolis.

How do I know this? Simply because I have a small collection of eight of them, all of which were purchased at garage sales in the area. So those artists did their “schtick” in more than just the larger cities. Back when there were more antique stores in town, I’d often see them for sale, but at a much higher price.

I haven’t seen any of them, at any price, for a number of years. The subject matter of these pieces of art from the past doesn’t change in any of the ones on my walls. There’s always a snow-covered mountain in the center, but in the far distance, and — in at least four of the ones I have — that hill is a dead ringer for Mount Rainier. There’s usually a large body of water in front of the mountain and the scene is framed on each side with shrubbery and trees that are similar to Douglas firs.

A larger and more recently painted one on my walls also has an island in the center of its lake. It’s a simple scene, but reminded both my son and me of Packwood Lake the first time each of us saw it. Unfortunately, there’s often a varying amount of cigarette, pipe or cigar smoke stains doing their best to dim some of the details of the smaller artworks. I’ve given some thought to applying the instructions available online to cleanse them, but have always chickened out before purchasing any special equipment needed to do a professional-looking job of it. And, I don’t trust any of the advice to use normal kitchen substances to do the job.

In the meantime, if you have such a painting and wish to get rid of it — at not much more than a garage sale price — you can as always get in touch with me at the email address at the end of these columns.

Who knows, it could be the beginning of a Moeller Northwest Art Museum?


Bill Moeller is a former entertainer, mayor, bookstore owner, city council member, paratrooper and pilot living in Centralia. He can be reached at