Friday, October 22, 2010

On the Road: WPA Murals in Ventura

When most people think of taking a romantic getaway, a day-trip to see WPA murals in the post office might not be at the top of their list.  Luckily for me, I married someone who not only thought it was a great idea, also suggested adding a visit to the local mission AND the history museum.  Can I pick 'em or what?

It's 70 miles to Ventura from our home.  Los Angeles was in the middle of a record-breaking heat wave when we hit the road, so seaside Ventura felt cool and comfortable at 85 degrees.  (It was a full thirty degrees cooler in Ventura that day, if you can believe it.)  Sadly, it was also a Sunday, and the post office was closed, but we had a great time peaking in the windows to check out the mural.  I had to photograph the mural in three sections.  The photos don't show a complete view, just the parts I could photograph through the vertical blinds in the post office windows.
Left section of the Gordon Grant WPA mural in the Ventura Post Office, 2010.

Painted by Gordon Grant between 1936 and 1937, the mural showcases the main agricultural products of Ventura in the 1930's.  I had never seen the mural in person before, but I talk about it each Fall in my History of Photography class.  We discuss the Work Progress Administration and the Federal Arts Project when we hit "Week 7- Documentary Photography".

My students are always amazed that there was a time in this country when the government cared about the arts, and that during the Depression the government even paid  photographers and artists to make art.
Center section of the Gordon Grant WPA mural in the Ventura Post Office.

Parks' "American Gothic, Washington, D.C."
It blows my students' minds when I tell them about the Farm Security Administration photography program of the 1930s.  I tell them about the brilliance of Roy Stryker at recruiting some of the country's best photographers to create government-sponsored documentary  images.  We talk about different forms and uses of documentary (and propaganda) as we look at the photographs of Gordon Parks, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and many other FSA photographers.  Each term I teach this class I see the light of recognition in my students' eyes as they view this work for the first time.  I am alway amazed by how powerful it still feels to students, some of whom have only the faintest idea of what happened during the Depression.

Until I started teaching this class, I wasn't a huge fan of American Scene Painting, or Regionalist painting, as it is frequently called.  The earnestness of the work alternately bored and irritated me.  I grew up in a small town and I didn't see any reason to glorify rural living.  When I was young, I wanted out.  So I moved to Los Angeles and remained loyal to the Modernist camp, but seeing this work through my students' eyes has changed my mind.  It would be impossible not to appreciate Grant Wood's painting "American Gothic" after talking about the many challenges of life during the Depression and showing my students Gordon Parks' photograph "American Gothic, Washington, D.C."  The power of this photograph allowed me to connect with the original painting in a way that I hadn't believed possible.  Who was I to overlook the value of the New Deal projects or the artwork made in appreciation of rural America?  My grandmother's family home first got electricity thanks to the WPA's Rural Electrification Project.

I'm from rural America.  Maybe that was the problem.  But I've lived in Los Angeles for almost twenty years now and I have a new appreciation for life outside the big city.  I care about where my food comes from and about the people who grow and harvest it.  When I was growing up I didn't think much about the food I ate because I knew exactly who grew it -- my parents and grandparents.  Today the food production system in the US is much more complex, as is my relationship to it.  And today the Gordon Grant WPA murals speak to me in a way that wasn't possible twenty years ago when I packed everything I owned into the back of my pickup truck and headed West.
Gordon Grant's WPA mural in the Ventura Post Office, 2010.

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