At Large  July 26, 2019

Public Art Lost and Found: 9 WPA Murals to Rediscover

An estimated 225,000 works were commissioned during the depression era under president Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project (WPA), a program designed to put artists to work in paying jobs and to bring art to public places like schools, libraries and post offices where people congregate. Comprehensive records were never kept but artwork done under the program keeps popping up occasionally during building construction, as recently happened at the University of Vermont. In other cases a concerted effort, like that described in the book Art For The People: The Rediscovery And Preservation Of Progressive And WPA-Era Murals In The Chicago Public Schools, 1904-1943 (2002) which brought to light approximately 450 murals in 70 public schools across the city. Artists in every state from Alabama to Washington and Puerto Rico to Hawaii benefitted from the Program. 

To address the lack of a complete database of WPA funded art, Gray Brechin, a historical geographer at UC Berkeley founded the Living New Deal project. Like a New Deal Wikipedia they are seeking contributions from anyone who discovers artwork or has documents of any kind related to this great social and cultural moment in American History.  

Recently recovered WPA mural at the University of Vermont
Courtesy University of Vermont

A construction crew was surprised when they recently uncovered a painting from 1934 hidden behind a wall during a building renovation at The University of Vermont. It turned out to be a WPA era landscape of the Rock Point Overthrust a prominent local geological land formation overhanging Lake Champlain painted by Vermont artist Raymond Pease.

27 x 9 foot mural of Children’s Storybook Characters (1937) by Alabama artist Carrie Hill
Courtesy Birmingham Public Library

A delightful 27 x 9 foot mural of Children’s Storybook Characters (1937) by Alabama artist Carrie Hill (1875-1957) graces a wall in the East Lake Branch of the Birmingham Public Library. The artist painted herself as Mother Goose. Although damaged, like many other WPA funded works from this time that suffered from fire, flood or general neglect, this mural was restored by John Bertalam in 1993.

detail Helen Lundeberg's The History of Transportation (1939) mural
Courtesy the estate of Helen Lundeberg

A surprising number of women artists were employed under the auspices of the WPA. California artist Helen Lundeberg (1908-1999) created The History of Transportation (1939), an ambitious 8 x 240 foot cast concrete and terrazzo mosaic mural that was fully restored in 2005 and moved from its original outdoor location to Grevillea Art Park in Inglewood, CA where it can be seen today. 

History of Transportation mural
Courtesy Feitelson/Lundeberg Art Foundation

 

Philip Guston's 1938 WPA mural Early Mail Service and the Construction of Railroads
Smithsonian American Art Museum

While many artists who worked on WPA projects have fallen into oblivion, others became titans of contemporary art. One of them is Philip Guston (1913-1980) whose 1938 tempera mural, descriptively titled Early Mail Service and the Construction of Railroads was originally installed in the Commerce, Georgia post office. It took Guston 246 days to paint the mural and he was paid $540. It has since been transferred to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where it hangs in the Luce Foundation Center.

Isamu Noguchi's The Letter
Courtesy the Living New Deal

Sculptors, as well as painters, were able to find work through the WPA. Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) was another unexpected name to find attached to The Letter, a figurative cast stone relief installed in 1939 in the Haddon Heights, NJ post office where it remains today. Known primarily for his furniture design and landscape architecture, Noguchi, a Japanese-American, was hounded by the FBI following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor but managed to avoid being sent to a Japanese Internment Camp with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Rachel Silverthorne’s Ride (1938) mural
wikimedia commons

Rachel Silverthorne’s Ride (1938) was painted by Montana-born artist John W. Beauchamp for the Muncy Post Office in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, where customers can still see it. Considered the Paul Revere of Pennsylvania, the mural shows the courageous Silverhorne, in 1778, dressed in white and mounted on a white horse, warning a group of settlers of an impending Indian attack.

Mealtime, the Early Coal Miners by Jared French
Courtesy the Living New Deal

Pennsylvania is rich in WPA art. The 1938 painting Mealtime, the Early Coal Miners by Jared French (1905-1988) still hangs in the lobby of the Plymouth, PA post office. French and fellow artist Paul Cadmus became lovers at the Arts Student League in NYC and were part of the Magic Realist school of painters. French later married artist Margaret Hoening and together with Cadmus they formed "PaJaMa," a sexually adventurous photographic collective.

Peter Hurd's Old Pioneers mural
Courtesy the Living New Deal

Peter Hurd (1904-1984) studied under the famous illustrator N.C. Wyeth whose eldest daughter, Henrietta Wyeth painted Hurd’s portrait in 1936 when they were husband and wife. Hurd was commissioned by the WPA to produce a number of paintings for public buildings throughout the southwest including Old Pioneers, a fresco for the former Big Spring, Texas post office.

Celebrating the American textile industry by Ben Shahn
wikimedia commons

New York has an impressive repository of WPA art. Lithuanian-born Ben Shahn became a well-known Social Realist painter and political leftist, as were many other WPA artists. In 1939 Shahn and his wife, artist Bernarda Bryson, completed 13 panels in tempera about the dignity of labor titled Resources of America inspired by poet Walt Whitman. His ambitious work holds a premier place on the walls of New York City’s Bronx Central Post Office which has, unfortunately, like many underused post offices around the country, been sold to a private developer, but the WPA sponsored art still belongs to the USPS.
 

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