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WPA art: By the people, for the people

Klare Scarborough is director of the La Salle University Museum of Art In a building at 311 S. Broad, on an upper floor, some of the most important sketches in the history of art were created in a spirit of making art accessible to the ordinary American.

Klare Scarborough

is director of the La Salle University Museum of Art

In a building at 311 S. Broad, on an upper floor, some of the most important sketches in the history of art were created in a spirit of making art accessible to the ordinary American.

It was the Philadelphia Fine Print Workshop, an endeavor created by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) more than 80 years ago.

The workshop was one of only five centralized printmaking workshops run by the WPA, which aimed to put Americans back to work during the Great Depression. It provided artists with professional printmaking equipment and a collegial working environment, which fostered collaborative learning and experimentation. There, some artists explored formal styles, moving from one mode of expression to another, while others experimented with printmaking.

Many artists in the region participated in Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs, which are now the focus of La Salle University Art Museum's exhibition, "American Scenes: WPA-Era Prints from the 1930s and 1940s." It features 20 fine-art prints by Philadelphia artists on loan from the Free Library of Philadelphia, as well as works from La Salle's collection.

Like many artists of the time, Philadelphians portrayed the American scene as part of a larger movement toward cultural democracy that sought to integrate fine art into the lives of ordinary Americans. From 1935 to 1943, the U.S. government hired both experienced and up-and-coming artists to produce work for tax-supported public institutions such as schools, libraries, museums, and community centers. Artists were also assigned "socially useful" and practical projects, including teaching art to both children and adults in WPA-funded community art centers, settlement houses, and social agencies, some of which endure.

Notably, the Philadelphia WPA had a firm non-discrimination policy and employed artists of different ethnicities, African Americans, women, and even recent immigrants.

This was an important time in the history of art, and a great experiment in government support for the arts. Think about what it meant to receive a steady paycheck for creating art instead of laboring at non-art jobs. Through WPA support, artists continued to develop their skills, and they trained young artists who would not otherwise have gone into artistic jobs. Many of those young artists continued to develop artistically after the close of the WPA, including leaders of the American Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1940s and 1950s. By being able to focus on their craft, artists also had the freedom to experiment and to express themselves in a language that was assuredly American.

The workshop received national attention for the development of a new printmaking technique, which involved using carborundum granules to etch designs into metal printing plates. While artist Dox Thrash is generally credited with the invention of this technique, Hugh Mesibov and Michael Gallagher further developed it. This invention was highly publicized by the WPA, as part of a larger effort to justify the use of tax dollars for New Deal programs.

Thrash was one of several African American artists employed at the workshop. Born in Georgia, he took courses at the Art Institute of Chicago before moving to Philadelphia. Other African Americans employed by the workshop included Raymond Steth and Claude Clark, both of whom trained at the Barnes Foundation and what is now the University of the Arts. Artworks by these and other African American artists reflected an interest in industrial progress and laborers, as well as African American life and social issues, and sometimes provided commentary about racial injustices.

The workshop also hired a number of young female artists, including Hilda Husik Pertha and Sara Starekow Lisker, both of whom experimented with carborundum printmaking, creating lively and colorful scenes of popular entertainment. Other female artists, such as Bessie Rigrodsky and Charlotte Angus, produced more serious portrayals of industrial and urban scenes.

A few artists hired by the workshop produced outstanding abstract work. Among these were Samuel Brown, a young African American educator who also worked in watercolors; and Horatio C. Forjohn, born of Italian immigrants in Philadelphia, whose abstract representations often involved experimental techniques and technological themes.

The widespread production of fine-art prints during the 1930s and early 1940s furthered popular ideas regarding the democratization of art, and the social and educational benefits of art for the masses. The WPA support of the arts - and its creation of artistic centers - is one of the New Deal projects that produced something lasting.