“Men Working in Slate Quarry,” the 1939 Works Progress Administration (WPA) funded mural displayed at the Slate Valley Museum in Granville, Washington County, NY is as good an example as you will find of “Art for the People.”
The subject of the museum’s current exhibition “One Painting, Many Stories,” explores many of the artistic, cultural and political contexts within which the mural was created.
On Friday, September 9th, guest curator Bob Isherwood will lead a special tour of the exhibition and discuss the political and social trends that led to the making of “Men Working in Slate Quarry.”
According to Sarah Kijowski, the Slate Valley Museum’s Executive Director, “One Painting, Many Stories” examines how politics, culture and economy, as well as local, state, federal, and even global dynamics, intersected to produce the public art of the 1930s, one funded by the Works Progress Administration and other federal agencies and one with a regional bias.
Martha Levy, the painter of “Men Working in Slate Quarry” was typical of the artists employed by the WPA’s Federal Art Project (FAP), joining the program to financially support herself.
According to Jody Patterson, author of Modernism for the Masses: Painters, Politics and Public Murals in 1930s New York (Yale Univ. Press, 2020), the FAP was a means-tested relief program, providing paid work for as many as 10,000 artists regardless of artistic stature or reputation.
Other New Deal arts programs, such as the Treasury Relief Art Project or the program that dedicated 1% of the costs of a new post office’s construction to acquiring art, were competitive.
According to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, whose 2009 exhibition, “1934: A New Deal for Artists” included works by Martha Levy, the artist studied in Europe and trained at the Art Student’s League in New York from 1926 to 1932. She also attended its summer school in Woodstock in the company of artists many of us now associate with the Adirondacks – Rockwell Kent, David Smith, Frank Chase Swift (who painted Lake George from Abenia, the estate of Adolph Ochs) and even Judson Smith, the creator of the mural in the Lake George Post Office.
A Pittsburgh native, Levy created “Men Working in Slate Quarry,” for the Granville High School. It hung in the Town Hall from 1976 until 1995, when it was moved to the Slate Valley Museum.
According to Jody Patterson, artists employed by the federal art programs were encouraged to take some aspect of the contemporary American scene as their subject.
(Judson Smith’s Lake George Post Office mural, for instance, depicts a view of Lake George from a ridge above the hamlet of Bolton Landing. Smith sees Lake George as a settled community, civilized though sparsely populated. It calls to mind more famous regionalist visions – the New England of Paul Sample or the Wisconsin of John Steuart Curry.)
While the majority of artworks were created in regionalist and realist styles, the project also employed artists who experimented with Cubism, Surrealism, and variants of abstraction, such as Willem de Kooning, Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky and Lee Krasner.
Bob Isherwood’s tour will begin at 10 am. Tickets are $10 per person. Reservations are required and must be made before September 8th. For information or to make reservation, call (518) 642-1417 or email email@example.com.
Illustration: “Men Working in Slate Quarry,” courtesy Slate Valley Museum.