Art Exhibit Evokes Feelings of Social Justice Through WPA Images

Depression era prints from artists across US depicts life at that time

The 1935 lithograph “Family Flats” by Millard Owen Sheets will be among those on display Sept. 11-Dec. 21 at the DePaul Art Museum’s exhibition “Ink, Paper, Politics: WPA-era Printmaking from the Needles Collection.” (Image courtesy of DPAM/Collection of Belverd Needles Jr. and Marian Powers Needles

CHICAGO —(ENEWSPF)—October 30, 2014. During arguably one of the more difficult times in American history — the Great Depression — artists were commissioned to help inspire the nation. “Ink, Paper, Politics: WPA-era Printmaking from the Needles Collection,” on display at the DePaul University Art Museum in Chicago, provides a window into the 1930s — a time of economic hardship and struggle.

The 56 prints in the exhibition were produced during the Depression, when the federal government provided financial support to a wide range of artistic projects, from fiction to fine art, through the Works Progress Administration-Federal Arts Project (WPA-FAP). When the stock market collapsed in 1929 and many people were out of work the federal government set up programs to provide jobs for people and interestingly, the initiative included artists, explained curator Louise Lincoln, director of the museum on DePaul University’s Lincoln Park Campus.

“The WPA paid them to produce works of art and many of the works they produced were about the moment, the time and the place,” she said.

“A print that is really telling of the era, is one of a factory at full production with smokestacks pouring out black smoke,” said Lincoln. New York born artist Harry Sternberg, who created the screen print “Steel Mill,” spent a year studying what life was like for workers in steel mills and coal mines.

“We tend to look at the print and think of pollution, but in the 1930s it was more likely seen as a factory producing jobs and materials. It was a beautiful site for those living in that time period,” said Lincoln.

When the WPA was established in 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to use the arts as a way to help people identify themselves as Americans and have a project in common to get through the depression and back to prosperity. Roosevelt quite deliberately encouraged the WPA to promote art that celebrated workers, the nation as a whole, and a certain history and politics, explained Lincoln.

“One of the things that the WPA artists turned to was the role of the worker,” said Lincoln. This is a time where everyone is thinking what it means to be employed. An example of this can be seen in New York-based artist Edward Arthur Wilson’s lithographic “Sanding the Propeller,” which depicts two workers who are shown as strong, confident and masterful, polishing a propeller for a steamship.

The exhibition offers a detailed look into what people’s lives were like in a time of real hardship. California artist Millard Owen Sheets brought that sentiment to life with his lithography “Family Flats,” which depicts a New York housing tenement.

A work by Chicago artist Eleanor Coen, who established herself during the WPA administration, created an untitled lithograph showing a father, mother and child surviving during the Depression.

“We tend to think of the Depression as a long time ago and far away and these images bring up emotions from that time period,” said Lincoln. “It is hard not to see this material and think about what peoples lives were like in that time.”

Another lithograph, “Trouble in Frisco,” by Colorado artist Fletcher Martin shows two sailors fighting. It brings to life some of the emotions the U.S. was feeling at the time. Martin, who was a self-taught artist, became a war correspondent during World War II for Life Magazine.

The exhibition, which runs through Dec. 21, also includes works by well-known east coast artists Stuart Davis, who designed the abstract lithography “Anchor,” and Rockwell Kent, who created the ominous lithography “Nightmare,” which depicts a man jumping off a ledge.

The collection is drawn from a donation of 100 prints to the museum from the collection of Belverd Needles Jr. and Marian Powers Needles. Belverd Needles is the EY Distinguished Professor of Accountancy at the Driehaus College of Business at DePaul University; Marian Needles is an adjunct professor of executive education at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

The DePaul Art Museum is located at 935 W. Fullerton in Chicago on DePaul’s Lincoln Park Campus. Additional information is available at 773-325-7506 or online at