Apartment 4 is the first in the Open House Project series, an ongoing Arts Center initiative providing a platform for emerging and underrepresented artists and art forms. Artists and organizations are invited to collaborate and experiment with new ideas and original content in exhibitions that use the galleries in the John Michael Kohler home as a place for artistic inquiry. The home, built in 1883, is a unique setting for the generation of new curatorial explorations of topics ranging from the familiar to the phenomenal.
Although much of Florence Hasard’s life is shrouded in mystery, a few details about the character created by artist Iris Haussler are known. She was born in France in 1882, served as a nurse during World War I, and immigrated to Milwaukee in 1927, when she moved into Apartment 4. While we don’t know a great deal about her life in Milwaukee, we do know that she was employed as a seamstress in the Milwaukee Handicraft Project, a local arm of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Like other WPA projects, the Milwaukee Handicraft Project (MHP) was designed to provide work for people who were unemployed during the Great Depression. This project ran from 1935 until 1942, the year Florence disappeared from her Milwaukee apartment.
The MHP was unusual among WPA projects in that it employed mostly women. In this regard, it makes sense that Florence, a woman who was already part of Milwaukee’s art community as a model at the Layton School of Art, would have been drawn to the endeavor. Although many of the women employed by the Milwaukee Handicraft Project were immigrants to the United States, most of them were unskilled and had never worked outside the home.
Encompassing many units—book-binding, block- and screen-printing, weaving, and sewing (including a costume department)—the Milwaukee Handicraft Project also produced wooden and cloth toys as well as furniture. Given Florence’s skills as a seamstress, it seems safe to assume that she was attached to the sewing unit. She likely made costumes for local theaters or constructed “ethnic” costumes for educational dolls.
The work exhibited in Tale of Two, an exhibition at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in 2018, revealed some of the goods that were typical of the Milwaukee Handicrafts Project, with dolls, a costume, and printed textiles all on display. It is probable that Florence was involved in producing similar objects.
Outside of her work for the MHP and the seamstress business Florence ran out of her home, she produced artwork that seems to have been her way of processing the trauma of her war experience. Some of this work is on paper, but much of it has a cloth base. Employing fabrics in her work as an artist makes sense, given Florence’s talents relating to textiles. By using clothing as her canvas, Florence could reference the gruesome reality of war trauma as well as employ her considerable skills.
We don’t know how proficient Florence was in needlework before beginning her employment with the WPA, whether she was a skilled seamstress or could just get by with simple mending. As a woman born in the late nineteenth century and who served as a nurse in World War I, it is almost certain that she possessed some sewing skills before coming to the United States. Some of these skills she may have learned as a child, and some she may have gained during her nursing career, perhaps stitching both bandages and wounds. Moreover, it is plausible that she improved upon her sewing skills while an employee of the Milwaukee Handicrafts Project, and then opened her own business out of her home after building greater abilities.
Almost certainly her work as a seamstress in Apartment 4 and her work for the MHP were separate. The goal of the Milwaukee Handicrafts Project was not to employ women long-term, but rather to give them job skills and encourage them to work elsewhere, thus allowing women to contribute both to society and to their own households. It was because of this goal that wages paid to women at the MHP were deliberately low, providing no more than a subsistence income.
Florence was at least somewhat skilled in nursing, so at first glance it seems unusual that she would eschew the higher wages of that line of work to take lower paid work with the WPA. However, if we consider the trauma she experienced during her wartime work, it is not at all unusual that Florence would ignore the possibility of nursing and use her sewing talents instead.
The community of women around the Milwaukee Handicrafts Project conceivably provided a support network for Florence, or at the least a place where she could withdraw for a while. In her studio and home, surrounded by her possessions and alone with her thoughts, reminders of war would have been almost inescapable. A busy, vibrant work environment likely distracted Florence from her pain and past trauma; thus work may have served as an escape for her. Moreover, we do not know how fluently Florence spoke English. As a Frenchwoman and immigrant to the United States, she may have faced discrimination and been unable to find work as a nurse even if she had wanted to and such work hadn’t haunted her.
While nursing wounded and mutilated soldiers was clearly a traumatic experience for Florence, working in such an intense environment likely led to strong bonds with her fellow nurses. Working with women at the MHP, many of whom were immigrants like herself, Florence probably felt some of the same camaraderie she felt working with fellow nurses. Working alongside other women to accomplish a common goal, Florence may have found meaning and a sense of significance. While her work with the Milwaukee Handicrafts Project likely was a mental and emotional escape from the trauma of past experience, it may also have brought forth the positive aspects of that very same experience.
Schweitzer, Jacqueline M. “Women’s Work: The WPA Milwaukee Handicraft Project,” Milwaukee Public Museum Online Collections & Research. https://www.mpm.edu/research-collections/history/online-collections-research/wpa-milwaukee-handicraft-project Accessed 23 April 2019.
“WPA Milwaukee Handicraft Project” excerpted from Lois M. Quinn, John Pawasarat, and Laura Serebin, “History of Jobs for Workers on Relief in Milwaukee County, 1930-1994, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Employment and Training Institute, February 1995. http://www4.uwm.edu/eti/wpamilw.htm Accessed 30 April 2019.
This exhibition is supported in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts. Funding was also provided by the Chipstone Foundation, Kohler Trust for the Arts and Education, Kohler Foundation, Inc., and the Frederic Cornell Kohler Charitable Trust. The Arts Center thanks its many members for their support of exhibitions and programs through the year. The John Michael Kohler Arts Center is a 501(c)(3) (nonprofit) organization; donations are tax deductible.