One of my new interests is learning about the artists who were paid to create murals and paintings as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Art Project during the Great Depression in the 1930’s. As part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s plans to put Americans back to work, many programs were initiated across the country to build roads and bridges and parks. But the administration also started programs employing local artists, musicians, dancers, and poets to create art to be enjoyed by the public.
I just finished teaching a six-week writing course inspired by the WPA artists in Connecticut who were commissioned to paint murals depicting life during the 1930’s. These works of art were installed in high schools, libraries, post offices, hospitals and other public buildings throughout the state. Thanks to a huge fundraising campaign in the 1980’s, the City of Norwalk was able to save and restore dozens of these forgotten paintings. Norwalk City Hall has a permanent display of thirty-one WPA paintings depicting the oyster industry, apple and dairy farming, and leisure activities including the old fairgrounds in Danbury. I took a self-guided tour of these massive paintings and was impressed with the size and detail captured by the artists.
My adult writing class students learned about WPA artists including Alexander Rummler, John Steuart Curry, Justin Gruelle, George Avison, and Beatrice Cuming. What a forward-thinking idea to ensure that artists could earn wages during hard times by doing what they do best and bring art to public spaces. I was impressed that President FDR included artists, writers and musicians in these federal jobs programs. FDR’s New Deal program received push-back for providing jobs for unemployed artists. In defense of this new program, an administration official is reported to have replied, “They’ve got to eat, just like other people.”
Last week, a TV news segment told the tale of another Depression-era mural painted by James Daugherty that had been created in 1934 as one of seven WPA murals installed in the music room of Stamford High School. During a renovation of the school in 1970, construction workers cut the canvases up and threw them into a dumpster. A high school student found these historic murals in the trash and brought them home. Years later, an art expert authenticated the canvases which were estimated to be worth more than one million dollars.
After years of careful restoration work, one of these murals from the old high school has now been installed in the lobby of Stamford’s Tully Health Center to be viewed and appreciated by the public every day.
I was curious to learn if Westchester artists participated in the WPA programs during the 1930’s and 1940’s. According to the Westchester County Historical Society, dozens of murals and paintings were commissioned for Westchester County post offices, libraries, schools and public buildings as part of the New Deal programs to make art accessible to the general public.
Artist Thomas H. Donnelly, a Valhalla resident, created WPA murals for post offices across New York State between 1936 and 1941. The nearest example of WPA art that he created was for the old Mount Kisco Post Office. Donnelly’s two works of art, Indian Cornfield and Mount Kisco in 1850, oil on canvas, were painted in 1936. Unfortunately these historic paintings are no longer on display in the current post office building.
Kim Kovach encourages writing students to observe the beauty and history around us. www.kimkovachwrites.com