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NJ Gallery Celebrates WPA-Era Art and its Modern Appeal

Friday, May 04, 2012

Joblessness. Frustration. Doubt. These are issues that many Americans are still facing as the nation strives to recover from the worst recession seen since the Great Depression.

During the 1930s, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sought to alleviate some of these same issues through his Works Progress Administration (later Works Project Administration). The public works program provided millions with jobs and aimed to lift the spirits of Americans.

On Thursday, an exhibit that celebrates WPA-era artwork opened at LightSoundSpace Gallery in Rahway, New Jersey. The idea behind the show is to inspire visitors with messages that curators say resonate strongly with the economic struggles faced by many at present.

The exhibition, called “Posters for the People: Art of the WPA” includes hundreds of silk-screened posters created by artists during the 1930s and 1940s. The exhibit is part of a massive effort to catalogue and digitize WPA artwork.

Philadelphia’s Social Impact Studios and its founding director Ennis Carter head up the project. For about ten years, Carter and other volunteers have been searching for and organizing WPA artwork. They’ve discovered posters by visiting municipal archives, historical societies and private homes.

“We’ve been in people’s barns and basements and attics,” said Carter.

Three of the pieces in the show are newly discovered works by the Newark artist Vincent Murphy.

Murphy’s daughter, Kathleen Anders, tracked Carter down and offered up her father’s art after seeing a “Posters for the People” exhibit in 2009 at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

Vincent Murphy and his brother worked in the WPA Newark poster division after World War I. There they created designs that publicized local events and promoted programs such as the Federal Housing Plan and Federal Housing Authority loans, which were first established in 1934. Murphy even designed a New Jersey state seal.

The posters that the Murphys and other WPA artists made spread the word about everything from public health initiatives to cultural events to community activities to tourism. They also aimed to bring art into the everyday lives of Americans, another important objective pushed by Roosevelt’s New Deal administration.

Carter believes that many of the themes and messages found in the WPA artwork still ring true today. One of the posters on view, for example, depicts the Statue of Liberty torch topped with bright red and burnt orange flames. In bold print, the words, “Democracy ... a challenge,” are spelled out under Lady Liberty’s arm. It’s a message that many Americans can still get behind.

“From a larger perspective, I think it fits into the questions we’re asking ourselves as a country,” said Carter. “We have a great economic hardship right now, a lot of people out of work. People are looking at government to decide, ‘What is it supposed to do, what is it not supposed to do?’”

"Posters for the People" runs through June 14 and is presented by Social Impact Studios and the Rahway Arts District. On June 7, visitors to the show can create WPA-style silk-screened posters of their own.

Check out a slideshow of works in the show below.

An old-school message from the US Department of Agriculture:
Courtesy of Social Impact Studios/Posters for the People
An old-school message from the US Department of Agriculture: "Grow It Yourself, Plan a Farm Garden Now."
This Newark, NJ Dept. of Health poster warns against the perils of kissing.
Courtesy of Social Impact Studios/Posters for the People
This Newark, NJ Dept. of Health poster warns against the perils of kissing.
A War Services of LA poster by Al Doria is also part of the exhibition.
Courtesy of Social Impact Studios/Posters for the People
A War Services of LA poster by Al Doria is also part of the exhibition.
A print Jerry Roth created for the United States Travel Bureau promoting the state of Montana.
Courtesy of Social Impact Studios/Posters for the People
A print Jerry Roth created for the United States Travel Bureau promoting the state of Montana.
A newly discovered poster designed by Vincent Murphy, who worked in the WPA Newark poster division after World War I.
Courtesy of Social Impact Studios/Posters for the People
A newly discovered poster designed by Vincent Murphy, who worked in the WPA Newark poster division after World War I.
Another piece by Murphy: this poster for a federal music project called 'Festival of Music Under the Stars.'
Courtesy of Social Impact Studios/Posters for the People
Another piece by Murphy: this poster for a federal music project called 'Festival of Music Under the Stars.'
Murphy even designed a New Jersey state seal.
Courtesy of Social Impact Studios/Posters for the People
Murphy even designed a New Jersey state seal.
This yellow-and-orange poster suggests that people be a little more courteous.
Courtesy of Social Impact Studios/Posters for the People
This yellow-and-orange poster suggests that people be a little more courteous.
'Sew for Victory,' an NYC WPA War Services poster, is also part of the exhibition.
Courtesy of Social Impact Studios/Posters for the People
'Sew for Victory,' an NYC WPA War Services poster, is also part of the exhibition.
This WPA Recreation Project poster is also in the show.
Courtesy of Social Impact Studios/Posters for the People
This WPA Recreation Project poster is also in the show.
This poster urges NYC homeowners to make sure fire retardant is on their cellar ceilings.
Courtesy of Social Impact Studios/Posters for the People
This poster urges NYC homeowners to make sure fire retardant is on their cellar ceilings.
This message behind this poster in the show still rings true today.
Courtesy of Social Impact Studios/Posters for the People
This message behind this poster in the show still rings true today.
This
Courtesy of Social Impact Studios/Posters for the People
This "Work with Care" poster was made as part of a Pennsylvania federal art project.
A poster for the Federal Dance Theatre production 'Salut Au Monde.' The performance's name comes from a Walt Whitman poem.
Courtesy of Social Impact Studios/Posters for the People
A poster for the Federal Dance Theatre production 'Salut Au Monde.' The performance's name comes from a Walt Whitman poem.

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