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Gallery Rediscovers Heritage of Depression-Era Artworks : Exhibits: Show, bus tours highlight 10 surviving WPA projects scattered about the city.

December 01, 1991|DAVID HALDANE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A group of people stood recently in a stairwell at Poly High School, admiring a huge mural in muted blues and browns. It depicted dockworkers unloading crates of fruit, sailors standing with folded arms, surfers at the beach and women working in a fish cannery.

"This is great," said Harriet Roth, 71, a resident of Leisure World in Seal Beach. "It brings back a lot of memories."

The mural, called "Industrial Activities in Long Beach," was painted in 1939 by artists Jean Swiggett and Ivan Bartlett under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a federal program initiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s to create jobs--including some for artists--during the Great Depression.

One of 10 surviving WPA murals, mosaics and sculptures in Long Beach, it is also part of an unusual exhibit called "Federal Art in Long Beach: A Heritage Rediscovered" on display through Jan. 25 at the FHP Hippodrome Gallery.

"We wanted to give the community back some of its heritage," gallery director Cynthia MacMullin said. "We wanted to stimulate their awareness of their history."

Although the exhibit consists only of photographs and reproductions of the city's 10 surviving WPA art projects, the gallery has conducted three Saturday bus tours for patrons wishing to visit the actual sites.

Besides the mural at Poly High School, there is a series of painted panels at the Long Beach Public Library's main branch, as well as murals, a painted curtain and mosaics at Jane Addams Elementary School, The Promenade, Will Rogers Middle School, Woodrow Wilson High School, Charles A. Lindbergh Middle School and Long Beach Municipal Airport. In addition, there are flat wall sculptures at George Washington and Benjamin Franklin middle schools.

Subject matter ranges from a huge mosaic of beach life at the north end of The Promenade downtown to a depiction of "modern technology" at the airport. Other paintings show historical scenes, including those at the library and at Lindbergh Middle School; the one at Will Rogers Middle School depicts underwater life.

MacMullin said she got the idea for the show three years ago when a gallery patron came to her with a collection of prints that the federal government had commissioned the patron's brother to produce in the 1930s. "It made me wonder how many other federal arts projects there were in the city," she recalled.

With the help of local art historian Douglas M. Hinkey, MacMullin began looking through long-forgotten archives, yellowing Ph.D. theses and dusty government contracts. She discovered that Long Beach has a particularly rich heritage of WPA art projects, largely because many of the city's public buildings were seriously damaged in a 1933 earthquake and had to be rebuilt during the years when the WPA was at its height.

Eventually MacMullin and Hinkey were able to document 14 public art projects in Long Beach that had been commissioned by the federal government between 1934 and 1944. Ten of those remained. The rest had been demolished, painted over or removed and lost.

One of the surviving works, in fact, is still in danger of being lost: a large mural in the Wilson High School auditorium that depicts campus life in the 1930s. Because the mural is painted on an asbestos curtain, school officials say, it has run afoul of environmental health standards and will probably be destroyed next summer.

Ruthann Lehrer, the city's historic preservation officer, who saw the Wilson High mural for the first time during a recent gallery tour, said she hopes to keep that from happening. "I think we need to do some research to find out what other communities have done," Lehrer said, adding that she intends to confer with restoration experts on how the curtain can be saved.

"These are the artistic treasures of Long Beach," Lehrer said. "They were created at a time when art was publicly supported; to a certain extent, the subject matter is the life of the people."

Both MacMullin and Hinkey see major differences between the public art of the 1930s and what passes for public art today--pieces placed in public buildings but largely paid for by private interests. The government dictated that WPA art be closely related to the community in which it was displayed, but today's art has more to do with the personal vision of particular artists.

"Frequently there's a disjunction between the artist and the community," Hinkey said. "The art isn't (necessarily) responsive to the community."

Indeed, some participants in the recent bus tour--many of them senior citizens--expressed nostalgia for the days when the WPA was in full swing.

"It was an upbeat time," said Bertha Hartman, 76, a retired teacher who once taught remedial reading for the WPA in New York. "You had the Depression, but you could get out of the Depression and do something. There was a reason for living. It would be wonderful if we could create a similar project today."

Long Beach Federal Art Sites

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