Tracing time through WPA prints

shoe-shining

[Shoe Shining] Source: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Art and Artifacts Division, The New York Public Library. “Shoeshining” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed October 31, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/54bb3280-2893-0132-f518-58d385a7bbd0]

This week I was feeling homesick, so I decided to look through the New York Public Library’s digital archives. Dorky I know.

But there’s something so distinctly American about its collections that I’m transported across the pond, and back in time.

The folder that catches my eye today is the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Art, which spans from 1935 – 1943:

http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/418da080-2893-0132-f493-58d385a7bbd0/book?parent=ab394b60-d4bc-0131-8bd5-58d385a7bbd0#page/1/mode/2up

j-mcwhirter

[J. McWhirther] Source: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Art and Artifacts Division, The New York Public Library. “Southern Cottonpickers” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed October 31, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/4b5df920-2892-0132-856d-58d385a7bbd0]

The WPA program was set up by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1935 as the largest agency within the New Deal. It created paying jobs for millions of unemployed workers of various skills and trades—including artists, actors, and writers—tasked with creating ‘public works’. (We can also still thank the WPA for many of our bridges and roads).

e-muler

[E.Muler] Source: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Art and Artifacts Division, The New York Public Library. “Going Home” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed October 31, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/7b240a80-d56d-0131-6ebc-58d385a7bbd0]

harlem-coal-yard

[Harlem Coal Yard] source: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Art and Artifacts Division, The New York Public Library. “Harlem Coal Yard” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed October 31, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/8396d990-d56d-0131-7ffd-58d385a7bbd0

I’ve always loved the artwork to come out of this era because it is so interconnected with the political; often documenting the social issues of the day; giving a profound sense of collective experience even in it’s depictions of an individual. And it lives in the every-day.

So much creativity burst out of the interwar years; despite providing a decade of international ‘calm’ the Great Depression demanded a restructuring of modern society. And with that came wide-ranging views of what that restructuring could be. The social commentary embedded in much of the WPA artwork served not only as a reflection of the present—a sign of the times—but sometimes a vision for the future.

katherine-sanderson

[Katherine Sanderson] source: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Art and Artifacts Division, The New York Public Library. “River Scene” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed October 31, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/682fa300-2893-0132-44f8-58d385a7bbd0]

Most of all, this little collection reminds me of my Great Grandfather, Mordi Gasner, who was an artist born and raised in New York City. Who was employed to paint murals at Post Offices and in public spaces during the Great Depression. Who never went to college but knew multiple translations of the Old Testament by heart. And who tried, always, to create work with meaning. With purpose.

Instead of feeling homesick, I think I’ll revisit Mordi’s words, and work. Starting with the thoughts and opinions he held with such confidence—at exactly my age.

(to be continued).

woman-with-arm-on-head

[Woman with arm] source: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Art and Artifacts Division, The New York Public Library. “Woman with Arm on Head” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 1, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/e0f0e6b0-2892-0132-3b80-58d385a7bbd0]

By Mica Schlosser