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For the People, By the People

The High Desert Museum revives the commissioned art of the Great Depression

When Oregonians think of the Works Progress Administration, we likely think of bridges on the Oregon Coast, the Oregon State Capitol building or Timberline Lodge. In Bend, maybe the Skyliners Lodge is what comes to mind. But we don’t immediately consider a statue outside of a high school or a mural on a post office wall. However, the Great Depression-era relief agency WPA commissioned hundreds of thousands of artworks during its tenure in addition to the construction of parks and buildings that we’re most familiar with. This April, the High Desert Museum in Bend will reveal the exhibit Art for a Nation: Inspiration from the Great Depression, which pays homage to the arts wing of the WPA by showcasing historical art produced by WPA-commissioned artists as well as newly commissioned works of art from present-day artists.

The Forgotten Arts of Federal One

The 1930s were tough times for the United States. The decade, known as the dirty thirties, brought about the Great Depression, high unemployment, extreme poverty and catastrophic dust storms that wiped out the farms of the Great Plains. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933, his New Deal focused on just three Rs to get America back on its feet: relief, recovery and reform. By the time his final programs were put in place five years later, he’d exhausted nearly every letter in the alphabet naming the various new governmental acts and agencies, many of which—the SEC, FDIC and SSA, to name a few—are still with us today. One of these relief agencies, the WPA, created jobs for over 8.5 million Americans over the course of eight years through a variety of construction projects that resulted in a host of new roads, bridges, schools and other infrastructure all across the then-crippled country.

But the WPA, through its subdivision Federal Project Number One, also focused its economic recovery efforts on out-of-work painters, actors, writers, musicians and other artists. “The WPA gets a lot of recognition for its construction projects, but a lot of people don’t realize the arts were also a component of the program,” explains HDM curator Faith Brower. The federal agency’s contributions to the arts are fairly underrepresented in the modern American consciousness, a fact which partially motivated the HDM to spotlight the program in Arts for a Nation. The current state of the union was a contributing factor in their desire to cover the topic, too. “We thought it was an interesting subject to reflect on while recovering from the recent economic recession.”

By commissioning art for non-federal public spaces and community buildings, Federal One provided jobs for America’s artists, including the likes of Jackson Pollock, Stuart Davis and Mark Rothko. The WPA paid the artists’ weekly wages of around $24 ($400 in today’s currency) while the hospitals, schools and other local institutions had only to provide the artists’ materials in exchange for their indefinitely-loaned works of art.

Hundreds of thousands of works were commissioned by Federal One, helping to beautify shared spaces across the country during an otherwise grim era. But only around 20,000 of those works are accounted for today. The remainder were lost or misplaced after institutions closed or changed hands. In some instances the art—which is considered federal property—was illegally sold or given away.

Art for a Nation will feature a small selection of these recovered prints and paintings in the historical portion of its exhibit, thanks to a loan from the Portland Art Museum. Surrounding this historic art will be immersive Depression-Era exhibits and programs, such as writing and typing activities, a music listening station featuring WPA musicians, a 1930s living room complete with the family radio playing one of Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats” and a stage where kids can act out a scene from Alice in Wonderland.

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An Idea Reborn

HDM and Art for a Nation take the concepts of Federal One a bit further, pulling them out of history and into today by way of three custom art installations commissioned from three nationally acclaimed artists for the exhibit. The HDM’s pieces are funded partially by sponsorship from local governmental agencies, but mostly by the museum itself and a number of Central Oregon organizations. But aside from funding differences, the HDM’s commissions parallel the WPA’s in every other way; just as the regional artists of Federal One were asked to create art that reflected their own region, the three artists in Art for a Nation will be portraying the Beaver State in their works. Says Brower, “We asked the artists to create the American scene for us. We wanted them to respond to the state of Oregon today, in a creative manner.”

Choosing the three creatives to tackle the project was no easy task. Brower says the museum tried to keep it as local as possible. “We were interested in working with artists from Oregon, but we looked closely at a number of artists based on their history of works.” Two were indeed discovered in Portland. Native American artist Marie Watt, whose work is inspired by the human stories and history in everyday objects, will be creating an installation to add to her series Blanket Stories. Composed of blankets donated by Central Oregon residents, the tower-like sculpture will include a short personal story with each blanket: where it came from, where it’s been and how it was used.

The second Portland creative is glass artist David Willis, whose art addresses the relationships between people and nature. He’ll be creating one of his signature glass sculptures for the exhibit. The final product will be something of a surprise, even to Brower, who hints, “He’ll be making a glass figure that will represent one of the WPA workers. But he hasn’t mentioned any specific individuals.”

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Made In Bend

The third Art for a Nation artist, Allan McCollum, is not from Oregon, but the vision driving his ongoing Shapes Project fits right into the exhibit’s theme of unique local flair. The New York-based artist produces and catalogs mathematically unique silhouette-like shapes by hand on his home computer, shapes he says represent individual people. He then hands off a large batch of his creations to smaller, regional artists around the world, who reproduce the shapes using a variety of mediums. Past installations for the Shapes Project have been rendered in wood and paper cutouts, Corian, embroideries, rubber stamps and custom-made cookie cutters.

Art for a Nation will be the first of McCollum’s installations made in Central Oregon, and also the first composed of pin-on buttons. To give the High Desert Museum’s installation its signature local panache, McCollum enlisted the help of local buttonista Delia Paine, who painstakingly replicated 6,048 of McCollum’s unique shapes—which represent the 6,048 pioneers who inscribed their names onto a rock in Wyoming during their journey along the Oregon Trail—onto her custom-made wearable buttons, all of which will end up in the final installation. The Bend artist uses a unique, stencil-like screening process to print designs onto her buttons, a method that complements McCollum’s outline-like shapes. “The cool thing is I’m not a traditional button-maker,” explains Paine. “I’ve invented my own way of doing it, which absolutely uses a black silhouette. It was a perfect marriage of my technique and his shapes.”

It took months of collaboration, materials acquisitioning and outright work to hand-fabricate each button, but Paine—who owns and operates Via Delia, a handcraft and memento shop in Bend—completed the order a full two months ahead of schedule. Her early finish was a relief for Brower, who says Art for a Nation has been a monumental effort for everyone involved. “Each of the artists commissioned is like a project in and of itself,” explains Brower, who is still dumbfounded at the raw efficiency with which Paine and McCollum produced so many buttons. The community response to Watt’s call for blankets was equally impressive to the curator; the donors, after all, will be permanently parting with their heirlooms for the sake of art. “It’s a bit of an abstract concept for people to contribute to a sculpture, but the Central Oregon community is supporting it.”

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A Community Inspired

HDM isn’t the only one to find inspiration in the WPA, Federal One and the idea of commissioned art as a way to rejuvenate an economy and a people. Art for a Nation has inspired other Central Oregon organizations to get involved, too. Come April, a handful of local organizations and arts programs will be working with the High Desert Museum to help build awareness for the era responsible for the Works Progress Administration. There will be a variety of films, discussions and performing arts themed around the WPA, the Great Depression and the 1930s in general.

“There’s a lot of programming throughout Bend that will be happening from April to September,” says Brower. Highlights include the HDM’s showing and discussion of Pare Lorentz’s 1936, half-hour documentary The Plow that Broke the Plains, which provided an educational yet damning account of the poor farming practices that led to the Dust Bowl. Also inspiring will be the Central Oregon Symphony performing pieces by Aaron Copland and Virgil Thompson—both composers were commissioned by Federal One, the latter of whom wrote the soundtrack for Lorentz’s environmental documentary. And Tower Theatre will be screening The Wizard of Oz to spark an interest in the 1930s for younger audiences.

From historical art commissioned to save a nation 80 years ago, to art commissioned to inspire a community today, to events to bring the era of the Great Depression and the Works Progress Administration alive, Art for a Nation will bring a season of arts to relish in Central Oregon.

Art for a Nation will be open to the public from April 16 to October 2.

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