Teaching is nothing if not a humbling and daily reminder of your own confirmation biases, a fact I learned the hard way (which seems to be my only way of learning) for the ten years of my teaching career. When a student in Art Appreciation once asked about an ancient statue we were studying, “Why did they make that statue without arms?” her obvious and perfectly relevant question revealed a gaping hole in my teaching that I later sought to fill through what I called the Endangered Art research project. The premise was this: assign small groups of students to recent or current situations in which artwork was in danger of destruction. The project had the effect of precipitating discussions about war, religious iconoclasm, public art scandal, opportunistic and systematic looting, and probably art’s greatest foe: apathy. Those discussions revealed so much about the process by which we maintain, destroy, or contextualize artworks in our ever-evolving society. As we discovered, some works die in bonfires of vanities, and others simply rot in storage containers.
This week I did my own Endangered Art research project, looking for some WPA-era murals in and around Seattle. I’ve been thinking a lot about the WPA lately–that vaunted or reviled government program rolled out by FDR under the New Deal during the Great Depression “to provide useful work for millions of victims of the Great Depression and thus to preserve their skills and self-respect.” Depending on how voters decide next year, we may be on the verge of instituting a Green New Deal for the 21st century. While the Green New Deal has different goals, namely “to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers; to create millions of good, high-wage jobs and ensure prosperity and economic security for all people of the United States,” there are echoes of the original. Though some have suggested it, there’s not a lot of buzz about reviving the WPA, although the sponsoring Representative for the Green New Deal Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, rolled out some throwback artworks on August 30 to promote the resolution.
Art was perhaps the highest-profile aspect of the WPA, likely because some of the artists commissioned went on to become practically synonymous with American Art in the 50’s. Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning were among the ranks, and Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother photograph (produced by a related-program, the Farm Security Administration) became an iconic symbol of the Dust Bowl era. In spite of their visibility, most WPA projects involved infrastructure, schools, and public parks. Artists comprised only about 5% of the overall budget. It’s now been more than three-quarters of a century since the end of the WPA, and I wanted to find out how the few extant WPA murals in the Seattle area have fared. I tracked them down using the wonderful website The Living New Deal, which is hosted by the department of geography at the University of California, Berkeley.
The results: I found three(ish) large-scale mural style paintings by artist Jacob Elshin in the Seattle area. Elshin was born in Russia at the tail-end of the 19th century and immigrated to the Pacific Northwest in the 20’s. The two murals featured here, Historical Review of Education and Present Day Education, are located in the U.S. Post Office near the University of Washington. The building is a beautiful art deco construction, grandiose on the outside but clearly redesigned for ease-of-use on the inside. The bemused but very helpful staff there escorted me through the mail room from the outdoor loading dock to view the paintings, which hang high above office door frames, obscured by hanging fluorescent lights. According to The Living New Deal site, these are in their original location, a former lobby. They are safely ensconced, but I doubt very many members of the public ever see them.
The third Jacob Elshin piece, Miners at Work, also originally designed for a post office (this one in Renton) was moved to the Renton Highlands Library at one point. This library has recently relocated to an airy new building a block or so from its original site. It is outfitted with quite lovely contemporary art to suit the building, but Miners… did not make the trip, and is now being stored by the city.
A small amount of work created by artists with the WPA went on to shape our cultural narrative of that time. Some of the artists, because they were able to keep themselves fed thanks to the WPA during the Great Depression, went on to change the course of art history. It’s disheartening to think that Elshin’s contributions aren’t on view in any meaningful way, but they’re far from the only WPA artworks that have met this fate. At least they still exist. What was most important about the WPA’s funding of artists is that in a time of dire resource scarcity, some respect was given (in the form of actual wages) to artists as laborers. Elshin didn’t reach the heights of recognition of some of his contemporaries, but his work depicted and honored those everyday workers like himself. And today’s working artists could definitely benefit from that.