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The Federal Art Project: Supporting Good Artists in Bad Times

January 27 - September 1, 2008
Heritage Gallery

Among the many projects to come out of the Great Depression and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal government programs to combat massive unemployment are those that dealt with the arts, architecture and crafts of American workers. Michigan State University Museum presents an exhibition of pieces from public work projects in Michigan and on the Michigan State College campus during the 1930s and early '40s.
More than 8,500,000 Americans were hired through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) mostly to build roads, public buildings and parks. Unemployed artists and writers were also given work through branches of the WPA known as the Federal Art Project and the Federal Writers' Project. Their lasting legacy can still be seen and enjoyed throughout the state and the nation.

Michigan State University and MSU Museum collections are rich with examples of a WPA legacy of art and craft. Included are miniature barn models that showed Agricultural Engineering students a variety of barn construction techniques, a series of dolls dressed in detailed period costumes, and a set of miniature pieces of historic furniture styles for MSC Home Economics students studying the history of clothing or furniture design. A large relief map of the campus was created in 1941 by WPA craft persons. Its accurately detailed miniature buildings and natural features can be compared with the growth of the present campus.

Museum collections also house examples of Michigan Native American WPA projects that produced rustic furniture for hunting lodges as well as skis, snowshoes, fishing creels and decorative arts utilizing traditional native materials and craft techniques. Sculptures created by Leonard Jungwirth for the Michigan School for the Blind and a bust of Mark Twain by Samuel Cashwan reflect the Federal Arts Project. Jungwirth later became a sculpture instructor at MSU and created the well-known Sparty statue. The exhibition will also present some of the many local murals and sculptures through photographs of these works.

Historic mural restored for MSU Museum exhibit
The exhibit also features a newly restored WPA-era historic mural from the museum's collections. "Natural Resources of Northern Michigan," a 70x181" oil-on-canvas painting by Carl H. Frezell (1901-1970) in 1936 depicts underground and open pit mining, logging, agriculture, and tourism - industries vital to the economy of Michigan's Upper Peninsula (UP) in the 1930s. Members of the Frezell family are expected to be in attendance to view the restored mural, which was originally commissioned by the WPA for a courthouse in Bessemer in the UP, and came to the MSU Museum collections in 1957. The MSU Museum gratefully acknowledges the generosity of Parma Conservation. By donating its services to clean and restore this painting, the Chicago-based firm has preserved part of Michigan's historic and artistic heritage.