October 25, 2011

Repost: A Thousand Words, Right?

I have always been a huge fan of the posters from President Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration (WPA), and frankly, the scope of the project itself. The largest, and most important of The New Deal Cultural Works—The Works Progress Administration—launched on May 6, 1935—seventy-six years ago—with the simple philosophy of "Putting Unemployed Americans back to work in jobs which would serve the public good and conserve the skills and the self-esteem of workers throughout the United States." FDR himself says this, in regards to our need for change:

"...We find our population suffering from the old inequalities, little changed by our past sporadic remedies. In spite of our effort and in spite of our talk, we have not weeded out the overprivileged and we have not effectively lifted up the underprivileged....We have... a clear mandate from the people, that Americans must forswear the conception of the acquisition of wealth which, through excessive profits, creates undue private power over private affairs and, to our misfortune, over public affairs as well. In building toward this end we do not destroy ambition, nor do we seek to divide our wealth into equal shares on stated occasions. We continue to recognize the greater ability of some to earn more than others. But we do assert that the ambition of the individual to obtain for him and his a proper security, a reasonable leisure, and a decent living throughout life is an ambition to be preferred to the appetite for great wealth and great power."

Persistent unemployment was a continuing concern, and Roosevelt felt that simply doling out relief payments would mean, "spiritual and moral disintegration destructive to the national fibre."

Work began immediately on the WPA's Federal Project Number One (simply known as "Federal One"). The project covered Five Cultural Arenas: the Federal Art Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Theatre Project, the Federal Writers Project and the Historical Records Survey, each headed by a National Director. Just one year after the five national directors first met in Washington, some 40,000 WPA Artists and other cultural workers were employed in projects throughout the United States. The cultural impact of this simple fact was far-reaching, summed up by Holger Cahill, director of the Federal Art Project, in a 1939 speech:

"... The Project has discovered that such a simple matter as finding employment for the artist in his [sic] hometown has been of the greatest importance. It has, for one thing, helped to stem the cultural erosion which in the past two decades has drawn most of America's art talent to a few large cities. It has brought the artist closer to the interests of a public which needs him, and which is now learning to understand him. And it has made the artist more responsive to the inspiration of the country, and through this the artist is bringing every aspect of American life into the currency of art."

I'll spare you the history, but long story short, roads were built, parks were cultivated and our Nation's infrastructure was both created and made stronger. A perfect example of that (if we work together),
"The Whole is Greater than the Sum of Its Parts"- Philosophy that Aristotle spoke of.

The poster above was created by Ms. Vera Bock (click)—one of the two noted women creating these works. Created sometime between 1936 and 1941, it is a great example of the WPA's original intent: encouraging laborers to work for America. And perhaps I'm sitting here, listening to the latest happenings in New York, and feeling restless. Perhaps you have been feeling the same way? The economy and the overall state of our Nation has been up in arms, or so it feels. I am counting my blessings Every. Single. Day. I am grateful for health, happiness, a roof over my head and an incredible job. But what more can be done? Moving along, perhaps this next segue may help to guide me:

While puttering around on here and looking at the WPA Posters (click), I started reading about Anthony Velonis (click). He was a schooled artist who joined the New York City WPA Poster Division as a Designer in 1935. In the beginning, the posters were hand-painted or (though, rarely) letterpress printed. Velonis had worked in his brother's sign shop (prior to his time at the College of Fine Arts) and it was he who brought silkscreening into the Poster Division. Through his efforts, silkscreen prints were turned into a fine art medium (serigraphy). He wrote a book called, "Technical Problems of the Artist: Technique of the Silkscreen Process", which can be read in its entirety here (click). Because of his work and contributions in regards to silkscreening, his Dept. was able to produce their posters at a much greater volume. Even still, while creating each one by hand. Enter the concept of an Edition. While I have yet to silkscreen a poster myself, I can say that I know it takes great skill—especially considering the amount of colors that they were using and the separations necessary to recreate the art in multiples. The ink is applied with a squeegee and pulled (using your hands on said-squeegee) with pressure across the sheet of paper/posterboard for each stencil. The ink dries on the paper, so the quality is much closer to the originals than the type of digital printing we'd see today. In a word, simply gorgeous. They were soon producing up to 600 prints a day. Not easy, and I can guess that most printers working in this department probably looked more like linebackers than artists.

In the end, the Works Progress Administration gave way to the Work Projects Administration and then, go figure—government and politics and censorship all reared their special heads (and this is my simplifying at its worst). There were problems too complicated to go into, and most State Units started to assign employees to non-cultural work. Finally the War put an end to all subsidized-artwork. It was formally ended in 1942 and here we are.

I would be lying if I didn't say that these posters are a big source of inspiration for me—artistically and spiritually. It was more a of 'band together' motion rather than a 'stand alone' posture. And maybe this is what I'm getting at? I'm curious—how are you dealing with these times? Are you coping? Are you angry or simply relieved? I understand all of those positions, and I would love to propose a project:
I am thinking as I type, but what about a Collective Poster? Here. If you simply think about these times (and please spend some time on the links in this post), is there a word or words or a sentiment that comes up for you? I'd love to hear it. Perhaps I could take my ramblings and turn them into a Something. Let's see what we can come up with. In the meantime, I am going to go back to my printing press. xo Victoria

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