Great Depression program aided morale

‘Just off Route 66’

AMHERST – One of the good things that came out of a very hard time, the Great Depression, was art: the making of more than 80,000 paintings, photos, murals, posters, sculp­tures and crafts.

Many of them were cre­ated because the artists and craftspeople were supported through the federal Works Progress Administration.

Smaller than the WPA’s public works projects, the art project eventually employed all kinds of art­ists – more than 8 million people – paying them each $53 a month, or about $730 in today’s money.

In her recent slideshow at the Amherst Town Li­brary, Nancy Baker, a retired Souhegan High School teacher who is executive chairwoman of the Guild of Volunteers at the Currier Museum of Art, showed iconic as well as little-known artworks from the 1930s.

They boosted morale, stirred social conscious­ness and gave hope to a nation that badly needed it, she said.

"We didn’t become bit­ter or lose our sense of self, in general," Baker said. "We came out of the 1930s better than ever."

Baker’s presentation, called "Just Off Route 66," was part of the ongo­ing "Big Read," an Na­tional Endowment for the Arts project that this year centers around John Steinbeck’s "The Grapes of Wrath."

The novel’s Joad family of destitute migrant farm­ers escaped the Dust Bowl on the 2,448-mile Route 66, "the Mother Road," as it was called. In the 1930s, thousands of people took it to California in search of a better life, and sev­eral of the artworks focus on the two-lane highway.

Baker offered inter­esting tidbits about the best known artists and artworks, including Doro­thea Lange and her pho­to of the worn face of a mother of seven children, known as "Migrant Moth­er."

The family was living in a lean-to, and the starv­ing, anxious widow had sold the tires off her car to buy food, Baker said. The mother’s name was Florence Owens Thomp­son; in 1978, a reporter tracked her down and learned that she and her children had survived.

Along with the Depres­sion, there was a lot go­ing on in the 1930s, and some art reflects the Harlem Renaissance and the Great Migration, the movement of 6 million African-Americans from the South to Northern cit­ies.

Baker’s slideshow fea­tured the work of Ed­ward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, Georgia O’Keefe and Berenice Abbott. Less well known were Palmer Hayden, Mabel Dwight and Allan Rohan Crite.

Some were self-supporting, some were helped by the federal pro­gram, and all expressed the spirit of America in the face of struggle.

Some offered uplifting scenes of happy families or hard-working commu­nities. Some had political messages. Some featured images considered ris­que. But it didn’t matter to the government offi­cials overseeing the proj­ect. They honored free­dom of expression.

"There was no discrim­ination, no censorship," Baker said. The attitude was, " ‘Hell, artists have to eat, too.’ "

The project "changed the face of American art," she said. "It was one of the greatest things we’ve ever done."

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.