Steel Worker by Elton Clay Fax

Elton Clay Fax painted Steel Worker while working for the WPA Federal Art Project in New York City. Although many black WPA artists treated the theme of black labor, Elton Fax’s portrait of a steel worker stands out for the individuality and confidence of its subject. Fax draws him from below, with powerful crossed arms and squared shoulders. The worker is at ease in his goggles and welding helmet. Behind him a steel beam offers a formal echo.

Elton Fax, Steel Worker, 1939. Unlocated Artwork. Image reproduced from Alain Locke, The Negro in Art. Washington D.C.: Associates in Negro Folk Education, 1940.

Elton Clay Fax exhibited three paintings and two drawings at the Baltimore Museum of Art in the 1939. Alain Locke chose to reproduce Fax’s “Coal Hoppers” in the exhibition’s catalog and singled out Fax’s self-portrait as the artist’s strongest piece in a review of the exhibition which he published in Opportunity Magazine.

Fax’s paintings from the show, including “Steel Worker,” portrayed industrial scenes. He created them while working for the WPA Federal Art Project in New York City. Although researchers tend to focus on other black artists’ promotion of black workers as heroic subjects – artists like Dox Thrash (1893-1965), James Lesesne Wells (1902-1993), Charles White (1917-1979), and Ellis Wilson (1899-1977) – “Steel Worker” stands out for the individuality and confidence of its subject. Fax depicts him from below, with powerful crossed arms and squared shoulders. The worker is at ease in his crisp shirt, goggles and welding helmet. Behind him a steel beam becomes almost like a second face or mask that echoes the worker’s expression.

 

 

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