About WPA Prints

In the era of the Great Depression a large body of art was created by American artists subsidized by the U.S Government through the Federal Art Project (FAP), a small division of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Authorized in 1935 and initiated in 1936, the FAP was designed to aid destitute artists to retain their dignity and, at the same time, to offer their products and services to the community.

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Under the FAP program the artists produced 240,000 copies of 11,285 original graphic designs along with murals, paintings and sculptures.

WPA rules demanded FAP artists labor in central workshops under a timetable. This workshop system fostered high production and new techniques for graphic artists. For instance, in Philadelphia the Black artist Dox Thrash and others developed a new print technique. From their experiments with materials and technical data from the Carborundum Company, makers of silicon carbide abrasive, came the carborundum print.

FAP artists created prints by various processes including monochromatic and color lithograph, woodcut and linocut; wood engraving, etching, relief cut, drypoint, aquatint, and lithotint. Edition sizes were rarely more than 25, and frequently much less. They participated in many exhibitions and won numerous awards for their prints. Quite a few printmakers exhibited at the Print Club of Philadelphia and the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

The WPA also organized “Art Week,” a program of exhibitions, which the WPA hoped, would bring art to rural America. These exhibitions would give artists the opportunity to exhibit and sell their work for two weeks of the year in public buildings in the nation’s 3,000 rural communities. However, WPA artists could not sell what they produced on government time. Each artist was given approximately 3 prints of an edition he/she created for their own use.

The majority of WPA artists worked in the major style prevalent in the decade of the 1930’s: The American Scene. American Scene painters employed local themes in a realistic style encompassing attitudes ranging from nostalgia for the past to recording the present passing scene. Included in American Scene Painting was “social realism” (social protest) which portrayed the economically and racially disadvantaged. Surrealism, abstraction and portrayals of moods, dance or rhythms also had a place in the WPA art.

Due to spending for the WWII war effort America was put back to work and the need for the WPA disappeared. When the Federal Art Project closed down in 1943, no provisions were made for cataloging or archival storage. Most of its portable art including prints was dispersed to museums, schools, libraries, and other cultural institutions. The rest of the prints remained in the hands of artists and their friends. The works of only a few of the better-known artists have since been extensively documented and acquired by museums and private collectors.

Excerpts from “WPA Prints” appeared in WPA Prints (1989) published by Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, MD and written by Erik S. Nord, Curator of the museum and “Preface” of Black Printmakers & the WPA (1989) published by Lehman College Art Gallery and written by Nina Castelli Sundell, Director of the gallery.

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