Bernard Joseph Steffen was born on November 24, 1907, in Neodesha, Kansas. As a painter and lithographer, Steffen was a member of the American Artists Congress and the Woodstock Art Association. During his lifetime, he exhibited work in several places, such as the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. At the Mid-Western Exhibition at the Kansas City Art Institute, he won medals in 1930 and 1931. He also worked for the Woodstock Art Association. Steffen died in 1980 in New York. Today, one of his WPA murals can be seen at the United States Post Office in Neodesha, Kansas.
The Dust Bowl swept across the southern Plains of the United States in the 1930s, leaving barren scenes such as the one depicted in Steffen’s print, Desolation. Farming opportunities had enticed Easterners to travel west and cultivate the Great Plains, which were once richly covered grasslands. However, farmers were using poor agricultural practices, such as over-cultivation, and severe droughts inflicted the land as a result of soil exhaustion. Few plants held the dry soil in place, and winds blew loose dust and dirt across the Plains as a result. Lasting almost a decade, the Dust Bowl contributed to the length of the Great Depression because of the displacement of thousands of people and the shortage of crops. The effects of the Dust Bowl were actually experienced worldwide. In titling the print Desolation, Steffen suggests the misery and anguish that individuals living in this area of the United States felt during this period of agricultural devastation.
Because of the subject matter of Desolation, the viewer knows the general vicinity in which this scene took place. The print shows an outbuilding standing alone, buried amongst piles of dirt and dust as it seems to struggle to survive. Barely attached to the structure, the door’s angle reveals that the building, and by extension the farm, might have been abandoned. The small, one-story building appears to have another smaller building attached to the back of it, for the roof lines do not line up correctly for it to be one entire structure. Two lone tumbleweeds rest along the building’s sides and piles of sand swirl around the foreground. A rickety wooden structure on the left side of the print may have been a windmill once upon a time, but it is missing its rotor, the wings of the windmill that rotate in a circular motion. Farms used windmills as a power supply to pump water from a well. In the background, the division of the dark landscape and the lighter sky establishes a wavy horizon line. In the sky, the scratch-like lines and parallel movement of these lines suggest dirt and dust flying through the air. Texture is a major component of this print. Not only are the dunes of dust illustrated so that they appear to be fine grained, but also the building’s detailing shows it is constructed of wooden planks. The tumbleweeds’ complex formation of twigs creates a rougher texture. The variation in values between the lightly colored building and the impressions of a dark horizon draws the viewer inward. The repetition of triangular shapes in the roofing of the house and the top of the vent protruding from the house leads the viewer’s eyes directly to the dust-infested sky.
Kaitlin Costley. "Bernard Joseph Steffen." Carrollton Collects: Prints from the WPA. Carrollton, GA: Department of Art, University of West Georgia, 2011. Print.
Falk, Peter Hastings, ed. Who Was Who in American Art 1564-1975: 400 Years of Artists in America. Vol. 3. 3 vols. Madison, CT: Sound View Press, 1999; Tim Warman, et al. "A new strategic vision." Environment 40, no. 6 (July 1998): 8. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed July 10, 2011).