Alma, Michigan

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Among the bold experimental programs that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt enlisted to aid the profoundly depressed U.S. economy of the early 1930s were "public works" programs to aggressively move people back to work. There was the Civilian Conservation Corp that put young unemployed men to work planting trees to reforest America. The Civilian Works Administration put people to work building or rebuilding the infrastructure of the country by teaching, or by building roads, bridges and dams.

George Biddel, a classmate of Roosevelt's from Harvard and an artist himself, suggested that FDR follow Mexico's lead and employ artists to paint murals on government buildings. Roosevelt was convinced and in 1933 founded the "Public Works of Art Project," funded by the Civilian Works Administration. It was succeeded by numerous other federally aided projects that, in addition to the visual arts, funded theater, music and writing projects.

One of the most productive as well as controversial programs was the Treasury Section of Fine Arts, which selected artists by jury and commissioned them to paint murals in U.S. Post Offices. The State of Michigan was the beneficiary of more than fifty Section post office "murals," as well as numerous other institutional painting and sculpture commissions.

Dirk Bakker began photographing "WPA" art in Michigan in 1978 for a book on Michigan WPA projects for Detroit's Wayne State University Press. In total he photographed over fifty Michigan WPA projects.

This small collection of works of art from Bakker's portfolio is a sampling of the array of genres and subjects that artists created during the Great Depression to depict both American life -- historical and contemporary -- and American ideology. The murals were painted by a cross section of accomplished artists who competed to win their commissions by designing unique and sometimes controversial concepts for their murals. The style of the painting or sculpture varies with the ideology and content of the work of art though most of the post office murals fit the Social Realism genre, a fitting style of representation for the time and economic conditions. For their ideas, labor, and materials, artists generally received commissions in the range of $300 to $800.

In three of the small towns depicted here, we get a sense of three artists' different approaches to capturing the zeitgeist of the time. In Mail Arrives in Clare, 1937, artist Allan Thomas looked to the town of Clare, Michigan's past as a logging region, and the vital role the U.S. government played by heroically bringing the mail to the loggers. In Bounty, a 1940 mural at the Paw Paw post office, University of Michigan painting professor Carlos Lopez celebrated in cartoon style the fruits of workers' labor and the joy of their social interaction in America. And in Cattle Auction, 1942, artist Frank Cassara depicted the stark reality of the cattle business in Sandusky, in a sober confrontation between farmer, auctioneer, and trader.

Most of these works have been preserved and can be seen in many post offices, schools, and other government buildings across the upper and lower peninsulas.

 
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