The Cycle of a Woman’s Life

A 20th-century mural for a women’s prison meets 21st-century inequality.

Then

Lucienne Bloch, 1938

New York, New York

Nickolas Murray, courtesy Old Stage Studios

Then

Lucienne Bloch, 1938

New York, New York

Nickolas Murray, courtesy Old Stage Studios

“We acted very busy, aware that the detectives were all over the place, glancing in our direction constantly,” wrote the muralist Lucienne Bloch in her journal. “Taking a deep breath, I took the first photo of the Lenin panel without looking through the lens. Because I felt I had moved, I took another.”

It was May 3, 1933, and Bloch, 23, was an artistic wunderkind deep into the development of an important and unique achievement: assisting the legendary artist Diego Rivera in the creation of his doomed Rockefeller Center mural. Called Man at the Crossroads, the mural would decorate the central lobby and depicted scenes of industrial workers, scientific discovery, and contemporary life.

Incensed by the inclusion of Lenin in the painting—and Rivera’s refusal to remove him from it—Nelson Rockefeller demanded that the mural be destroyed before it was finished. Defying orders from Rockefeller Center management, who instructed guards that there were to be no photos taken of the newly contentious work, Bloch snapped images of the frescoes with a small Leica camera hidden in her jacket. The paintings were eventually smashed to pieces; Bloch’s photos are all that remain.

Bloch was devastated by the destruction of the mural, but she was determined to take what she had learned from Rivera and apply it to her own career, creating frescoes and murals that depicted scenes of everyday life, often of the lower classes. In 1934, she painted a fresco at a community center in New York, which portrayed Depression-era tenement life; Bloch and her assistant were paid only in lunches and dinners for the five months it took to complete the work. The following year Bloch would paint her next mural, The Cycle of a Woman’s Life, for the Federal Art Project (FAP), which would employ her as a muralist until 1939.

Superintendent of prison Ruth E. Collins of Women’s House of Detention, 1932. Larry Froeber/New York Daily News Archive via Getty Images

The mural was Bloch’s first assignment as a FAP artist, created for a women’s detention center in New York’s Greenwich Village. Initially touted as a new kind of prison with rooms instead of cells, a rooftop garden and library stocked with 5,000 books, the Women’s House of Detention became infamous for inhumane conditions marked by riots and habitual overcrowding. Neighbors complained that prisoners routinely shouted out their windows to visitors and passersby on the street. In 1973 the beleaguered prison was demolished, and along with it, Bloch’s mural.

Prisoners playing basketball on the roof at the Women's House of Detention, 1954. New York Daily News Archive via Getty Images

“At my first visit to the Women’s House of Detention ... I was made sadly aware of the monotonous regularity of the clinic tiles and vertical bars used throughout the building,” Bloch wrote in a 1936 essay, “Murals for Use,” for a national report on the WPA’s art programs. There was, she wrote, “a crying need for bright colors and bold curves to offset this drabness and cold austerity.”

Lucienne Bloch by her mural, Cycle of a Woman's Life. Courtesy Old Stage Studios
Lucienne painting the mural at the House of Detention Center for Women, New York City. Courtesy Old Stage Studios

Bloch sought feedback from the staff and incarcerated women before deciding to focus her piece on motherhood, something she thought most of the inmates could relate to. “The inmates, at first wary of an artist, now have become deeply interested in watching the progress of the fresco and eagerly inquire of Miss Bloch what she is going to paint next,” declared the New York Times in September 1935. A playground scene depicting women and children together in a distinctly New York landscape, Bloch’s mural wove in details requested by the prisoners, like flowers. “The mural was not a foreign thing to them,” Bloch wrote in “Murals for Use.” “In fact, in the inmates’ make-believe moments, the children in the mural were adopted and named. ... Such response clearly reveals to what degree a mural can, aside from its artistic value, act as a healthy tonic on the lives of all of us.”

Then

Lucienne Bloch, 1938

New York, New York

Nickolas Murray, courtesy Old Stage Studios

Now

Joan LeMay, 2018

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Now

Joan LeMay, 2018

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Most of my work consists of portraiture of humans and animals. My images are usually bright and colorful, and I aim to capture a feeling or a moment—a happy part of the soul. It’s been a long time since I sat down to paint about something instead of painting someone.

I read that when Lucienne Bloch got the assignment for The Cycle of a Woman’s Life, she went into the prison to talk to the prisoners and was struck by how drab and depressing a place it was; it had nothing colorful inside. Bloch was honored to bring cheer and joy into the space. She wanted to make something that related to the lives these women led on the outside, but the mural shows mostly kids. It’s still a domestic prison of motherhood.

Today, 64 percent of the prison population is made up of women of color, and 80 percent of these women are single mothers. I wanted to update the symbols in Bloch’s mural to depict the inequalities and issues that continue to keep women—especially women of color—overworked and underpaid, both imprisoned and free, dreaming of a better life and also fighting for it.

A lot of my composition calls back to the original WPA mural: Like Bloch’s it is set outdoors, in a walled-off area, and there’s a residential home with children on the left-hand side. I replaced Bloch’s swingset with a giant, imbalanced scale, an allusion to the great fight to correct the pay imbalance in this country between white men and everyone else.

The river pathway that flows toward the money scale is being traversed by female prisoners. That is a comment on the idea of “selling people up the river” for profit, as nonmale labor is so often unpaid and undervalued in this country; I also wanted to call attention here to the injustice of the unpaid and underpaid labor of women in prison.

The only male figure in my piece, a child, looks out of frame, not engaging with the rest of what’s going on. The parent figure is either clapping to get his attention or just applauding for no reason. The pregnant woman is frowning and is in heels that no pregnant woman would be comfortable wearing. In the foreground, a figure comforts a younger woman who is holding her stomach.

The Chanel No. 5 billboard is a nod to the role aspirational luxury has in women’s consciousness—despite the pay gap, we are culturally still attracted to these things we can’t afford—as does the Cartier biological clock at the bottom of the piece. And, of course, there are bright, neon-yellow protesters, urging everyone to fight for progress.

Joan LeMay is a portraitist and illustrator based in Santa Fe, NM. She has exhibited her paintings in galleries across the country, and her illustrations have appeared in publications such as Paste, Lenny and the Houston Chronicle. She studied at the University of Texas, Houston, and the Art Students League of New York in NYC.

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