Begun in 1937, by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes , it was a Works Progress Administration (WPA) program to organize a project to publicize the territories and possessions of the United States. It originally called for groups of artists to visit four American territories (Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands).
WPA Federal Art Project (FAP) Director Holger Cahill decided to try the project on a six-month experimental basis sending artists to only Alaska. FAP state directors from the northern states chose twelve artists with competent artistic records. Participants included: Chicago artists Edwin Boyd Johnson, Merlin Pollock and John Walley, Massachusetts artists Prescott “Mike” Jones, Karl Saxild and Vernon Smith, Minnesota artist Arthur Kerrick, and New York artists Karl Fortess, Ferdinand Lo Pinto, Antonio Mattei (artist supervisor), Austin Mecklem and Roland Mousseau.
The Alaska Art Project concentrated on both coastal and interior regions. Travel was limited to those areas accessible by road, ship or rail. Where possible, the government provided transportation, e.g., U.S. Forest Service and the Alaska Railroad.
Throughout the project weather hampered outdoor painting. Sketches had to be done in between rain showers, and then reproduced later on canvas or paper in hotel rooms. The artists operated in Alaska from June through November 1937.