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Posts Tagged ‘wpa’

Photo: Goodman-Paxton Photographic Collection/Kentucky Digital Library
A Pack Horse Librarian returning over the mountainside for a new supply of books.

Here’s another story about dedicated book people making sure that books get to people in remote places. This one is from the 1930s Depression in the United States.

Eliza McGraw writes at Smithsonian, “Their horses splashed through iced-over creeks. Librarians rode up into the Kentucky mountains, their saddlebags stuffed with books, doling out reading material to isolated rural people. …

“The Pack Horse Library initiative, which sent librarians deep into Appalachia, was one of the New Deal’s most unique plans. The project, as implemented by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), distributed reading material to the people who lived in the craggy, 10,000-square-mile portion of eastern Kentucky. …

“In 1930, up to 31 percent of people in eastern Kentucky couldn’t read. Residents wanted to learn, notes historian Donald C. Boyd. Coal and railroads, poised to industrialize eastern Kentucky, loomed large in the minds of many Appalachians who were ready to take part in the hoped prosperity that would bring. ‘Workers viewed the sudden economic changes as a threat to their survival and literacy as a means of escape from a vicious economic trap,’ writes Boyd. …

“There had been previous attempts to get books into the remote region. In 1913, a Kentuckian named May Stafford solicited money to take books to rural people on horseback, but her project only lasted one year. …

“Unlike many New Deal projects, the packhorse plan required help from locals. ‘Libraries’ were housed any in facility that would step up, from churches to post offices. Librarians manned these outposts, giving books to carriers who then climbed aboard their mules or horses, panniers loaded with books, and headed into the hills. …

“Carriers rode out at least twice a month, with each route covering 100 to 120 miles a week. …

“The books and magazines they carried usually came from outside donations. [Lena Nofcier, who chaired library services for the Kentucky Congress of Parents and Teachers at the time] requested them through the local parent-teacher association. She traveled around the state, asking people in more affluent and accessible regions to help their fellow Kentuckians in Appalachia. …

” ‘ “Bring me a book to read,” is the cry of every child as he runs to meet the librarian with whom he has become acquainted,’ wrote one Pack Horse Library supervisor. ‘Not a certain book, but any kind of book. The child has read none of them.’ …

“Some mountain families initially resisted the librarians, suspicious of outsiders riding in with unknown materials. In a bid to earn their trust, carriers would read Bible passages aloud. Many had only heard them through oral tradition, and the idea that the packhorse librarians could offer access to the Bible cast a positive light on their other materials.”

More here.

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As everyone knows, there was serious unemployment when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, so, in collaboration with Congress, he had the government hire people to create work that continues to benefit us —  roads and parks, for example, and fine art.

Unfortunately, some murals and sculptures from the 1930s and 1940s have been lost, so the search is on to reclaim it.

Matthew Blitz at Atlas Obscura has the story. “The United States government wants its art back. Special Agent Eric Radwick, who works in the Office of Investigations for the General Service Administration’s Office of the Inspector General, is working to do just that — to locate and recover government-owned long-lost artwork of the New Deal-era federal arts programs. It could be hidden in plain sight.

“It could be in grandma’s attic. It could be in the possession of art collectors. No matter if it was found in the trash or cost a few grand, the art is federal property. … Most people, upon realizing they are in possession of federal property, are cooperative. …

“On May 9th, 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt received a rather curious letter from an old classmate and professional artist George Biddle. Since his March inauguration, President Roosevelt had implemented the most aggressive 100 days agenda in the country’s history in hopes of solving the Great Depression.

“While absurdly busy — he had just delivered his second Fireside Chat and was about to sign both the Farm Relief and Unemployment Relief bills — this note gave him pause. In it, Biddle wrote that he had long admired the Mexican government for paying artists ‘plumbers’ wages’ to paint murals on government buildings expressing Mexican ideals. Perhaps the President should consider something similar in the United States? …

“The letter got the President’s attention. A month later, Biddle met with members of FDR’s administration in Washington about his proposal. By the end of 1933, the first national art relief program — the Public Works of Art Project — was established.

“Over the next decade, the American art scene flourished thanks to the financial encouragement of the government. According to Smithsonian Magazine, in the first four months of 1934 alone, nearly 4,000 artists were hired to produce over 15,000 paintings, murals, sculptures and other works of art for federal buildings across the country. In 1935, the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project was established, the largest of these programs both in scope and number of artists employed. …

“At a time of crisis in America, these programs not only provided an enormous collection of artwork for public consumption, but gave the creators a sense that they were needed. ‘It made them feel like they counted,’ says Virginia M. Mecklenburg, Chief Curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.”

Oh, my, what an enlightened federal government! Sometimes one hopes for history to repeat itself.

Read about the challenges of tracking down missing federal artwork at Atlas Obscura, here.

Once upon a time, when the federal government was concerned about unemployment, it paid people to work, artists included. That’s why many murals appeared in post offices and other government buildings in the 1930s and 1940s. This post office mural by Charles Anton Kaeselau depicts the shot heard ’round the world at Concord’s North Bridge.

042617-Kaeselau-North-Bridge-mural

042617-Kaeselau-North-Bridge-mural

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Photo: Wikimedia

You know how in spring you start noticing things that winter’s sense of being closed up even when you’re driving around outside hides from you? When we lived in Pittsford, New York, for example, after going by the same spot for months, I suddenly noticed several unusual fruits or nuts lying on the side of the road. I had to go back, park, get out of the car, and pick one up. It was an Osage orange, a weird, bumpy gift of nature that the Works Progress Administration planted all over the Dust Bowl to counteract soil erosion.

Well, last weekend I saw with new eyes a tree I’ve driven past thousands of times. Suddenly on Saturday it made me think of illustrations of the naiad Daphne turning into a laurel to escape Apollo. (Definitely a case of limited options: give in or be a tree.)

Here’s a refresher from Wikipedia:

“Daphne (/ˈdæfn/; Greek: Δάφνη, meaning ‘laurel’) is a minor figure in Greek mythology known as a naiad—a type of female nymph associated with fountains, wells, springs, streams, brooks and other bodies of freshwater. There are several versions of the myth, but the general narrative is that because of her beauty, Daphne attracted the attention and ardor of the god Apollo (Phoebus). Apollo pursued her and just before being overtaken, Daphne pleaded to her father, the rivergod Ladon and Ge for help. So he then transformed Daphne into a laurel tree.”

More here.

Daphne-hides-from-Apollo

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I keep a folder of things I want to check out in walking distance of the office. Today I pulled out a Boston Globe article from 2-1/2 years ago, “Depression-era mural gets a second chance to shine,” and set out.

A Stephen Etnier mural of Boston Harbor that had been rolled up and stored away in 1981 was back on display.

Etnier, as Brian Ballou wrote in the Globe, was “one of hundreds of artists across the country picked by the federal government in the late 1930s to early ’40s to depict characteristic scenes of their region in post offices. …

“In early 2005, postal employee Brian Houlihan came across the painting and alerted Dallan Wordekemper, the federal preservation officer for the United States Postal Service. The mural was sent to Parma Conservation in Chicago, which began to restore the artwork in late 2008.”

The restored painting, “Mail for New England,” was unveiled in April 2010, but it took me until today to get to the post office branch at Stuart and Clarendon.

I got an extra bonus, too, because on the way I saw a completely unexpected bit of street art by the famed Gemeos twins, whose work at the ICA and Dewey Square was described in an earlier post.

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I’m happy to see some long-neglected murals being restored in Harlem. Robin Pogrebin has the story in the NY Times:

“When the Works Progress Administration [WPA] commissioned murals for Harlem Hospital Center in 1936, it easily approved the sketches submitted by seven artists, which depicted black people at work and at play throughout history. The hospital, however, objected, saying four of the sketches focused too much on ‘Negro’ subject matter … .

“Protesters rallied around the art, though, lodging complaints as high as President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the murals ultimately prevailed.

“Over the years, those wall paintings deteriorated or were obscured by plaster. Now they have been restored and brought front and center as part of a new, $325 million patient pavilion for the hospital, on Lenox Avenue at 135th Street that will be unveiled on Sept. 27. …

“The artists — the last of whom, Georgette Seabrooke, died last year — were not well known and their murals portrayed ordinary people going about their daily lives. Vertis Hayes’s ‘Pursuit of Happiness’ panel traces the African diaspora from 18th-century African village life to slavery in America to 20th-century freedom; from agrarian struggles in the South to professional success in the industrialized North.” More.

The WPA cost money, but it put a lot of people to work. And look at all the great things that were created! I especially love the idea that unemployed people were paid to paint murals, write and produce plays, interview ordinary Americans for the National Archives, and record folk music. I know it was a stressful time, but thinking about the art makes me almost nostalgic.

 

Photograph: Karsten Moran for The New York Times
Elizabeth Kolligs works on restoring Vertis Hayes’s “Pursuit of Happiness” at Harlem Hospital.

 

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