Local Connections: WPA Artists

Local Connections: WPA Artists

Susan Zwirn

Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000)

This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence

Born in 1917 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Jacob Lawrence moved to Harlem with his family in 1930 where he benefited from WPA projects. He studied art at the WPA Harlem Art Workshop in the New York Public Library’s 135th Street branch while he was still in high school. He continued his studies in art at the Workshop, despite dropping out of school to work part-time to help support his family when his mother lost her job. At the age of 21, he joined the easel division of the WPA and then the WPA Harlem Mural Project. Harlem, a destination for people of African descent from other parts of the U.S. and the Caribbean, provided Lawrence with a continual source of stimulation for his art. During the 1930s and 1940s, one of Lawrence’s major themes was working Americans, and unlike many artists, he created images of female workers, including teachers and domestic workers. The Shoemaker, 1945, is one of his images of men working.

Here, Lawrence depicts the strong physique and concentration of a lone worker, an artisan with powerful arms. Lawrence focuses especially on the man’s hands, rendered in exaggerated size and the largest element in the painting. It’s a serious subject, but Lawrence paints the background in the brilliant and joyous colors and patterns that he had noticed in many poor Harlem homes. Lawrence was well acquainted with the lives of laborers; his mother had been a domestic worker. In 1941 Lawrence was the first African American represented by a major New York City gallery. He was also the first to be exhibited in major museums and to enjoy patronage both within and outside the Black community.

Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)

In 1932, Lange photographed unemployed men in New York City on food line

Lange, born to German immigrants in Hoboken, New Jersey, is best known for her photographs taken during the Depression. A childhood case of polio left Lange with a limp that contributed to her sensitivity to the plight of others and her commitment to social justice. Deserted by her father and raised in the home of her alcoholic grandmother, Lange had a lonely childhood. She trained in several photographers’ studios, studied photography at Columbia University, and established a very successful photography studio in San Francisco. Lange’s early photos of labor demonstrations in San Francisco came to the attention of Paul Taylor, an economist at UCLA, who later became her second husband. An advocate for establishing camps for migrant workers, Taylor encouraged Lange to become a photographer for the State Emergency Relief Administration. The potency of these photos prompted Roy Stryker, the director of the Farm Security Administration, an agency that examined issues of rural poverty, to employ Lange in its historical division. Lange’s images became a source of inspiration for John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Her photograph, Migrant Mother, came to epitomize the Depression. This migrant mother was only 32 years old and had just sold the tires from her car to purchase food. Lange’s photographs later documented the injustice of Japanese internment during World War II.

Ben Shahn (1898-1969)

As a young boy Ben Shahn immigrated to the United States with his mother from Lithuania. When he was 14, he left school to become a lithographer’s assistant. He eventually attended New York University, CCNY, the Art Students League, and the National Academy of Design. His study of Jewish traditions, examined while the Depression developed, reinforced a concern for the plight of workers. He became known for his political subject matter, especially his series on the Sacco and Vanzetti court case that grappled with the trial and execution of Italian immigrants. Shahn worked on many WPA projects as both a painter and a photographer, chronicling the relocation of poor families to new federally sponsored communities through the Resettlement Administration. Shahn created a series of murals for a subsistence homesteading community in Roosevelt, New Jersey. The community was  founded by the Farm Security Administration in 1936 to house New York City garment workers and their families, who would farm while off from work in the summer.

Shahn mural now housed at Princeton University

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