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Joel Sheesley

On World-Making

George Ault and 1940s America.

"Nobody really realized what they were up against …. We just had a lot of hope, but still you'd be scared to death while you were doing it." This is the way my father, Byron Sheesley, concluded a 1994 interview with The Daily Star in Oneonta, New York, in which he chronicled just one harrowing mission of his 35 as a B-17 pilot flying over Germany. Scared to death sums it up well. The average crewman was considered to have a one-in-four chance of survival when the standard tour of duty was only 25 missions.

What then was the hope that my father was talking about? Certainly there was some personal element—a gut feeling that you were, somehow, going to make it through. And there was also a national kind of hope, a belief in America and the good intentions of the Allies. And there was a kind of hope that reached beyond the personal and political, beyond atavism and the bonds of nations acting as good neighbors; hope based in a sovereign god. But whatever hope glimmered, it shone in the face of an ominous deadly fear that everything opposite these intimations of faith might at any moment gobble the whole thing up in dark fury.

The tenor of a nation brought fully conscious to the reality of this situation is what Alexander Nemerov explores in To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America. The book served as the catalogue for a 2011 exhibition with the same title, organized by Nemerov, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. "To make a world" is an apt title. It invites us to consider a number of worlds open for remaking during the war years of the '40s: the political and geographic reshaping of the world map, the reshaping of the American homefront during a time of scarcity and anxious waiting, and the reshaping of the arts in the face not only of the horrors of war but also of the expansionist euphoria of the conquerors. It also suggests a "world apart," a world that must be made in the face of dissolution and chaos.

George Ault (1891-1948) is a fine artist to ...

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