PWAP & Wiggins Trade School

In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president. America was suffering from the worst of the First Great Depression.  With unemployment close to 25%, the government created the Federal Emergency Relief Act to help put people back to work.  Created as a prototype for other New Deal work- relief programs, the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) endeavored to be the first program to include artists with a living wage to create public artwork.

 

Although the PWAP only existed for the first 4 months of 1934, during that time, it put to work 3,749 artists who created 15,663 paintings, murals, prints, crafts and sculptures for government buildings and schools throughout the country. As Jerry Adler explained in his Smithsonian Magazine article, 1934: The Art of the New Deal.

The premise of the PWAP was that artists should be held to the same standards of production and public value as workers wielding shovels in the national parks. Artists were recruited through newspaper advertisements placed around the country; the whole program was up and running in a couple of weeks.

People hired into the PWAP had to pass a test to prove they were professional artists, and this determined their salaries. Earning an average of $75.59 per artwork, it was a pretty good living, especially for an artist in those times.

 

Although Lehman was getting rave reviews as a Post Surrealist painter, he was drawn to using his art for public good and political activism.  In 1934, after the Bloc of Painters frescos were destroyed, Siqueiros left Los Angeles. Lehman, along with Phil Guston and Reuben Kadish applied for the first of the New Deal projects and were assigned to work together on a wall for the Frank Wiggins Trade School in Los Angeles, California. As Lehman recalled, 

By this time, we were eager to do our own murals so we applied and were hired and given a wall to paint - jointly. 

Several months later, after a series of technical difficulties at the site, they were reassigned to work under another artist, Leo Katz who had just come from Dartmouth, where he had been assistant to Orozco.   According to Lehman,

Katz was filled with the myths and forms of Mexican art - past and present: the Quetzalcoatl Legend, the legend of Coatlicue, the Mother Goddess of Death, etc.  And he promptly proceeded to put all of these ideas into a mural for the Trade School.

Katz was a Czechoslovakian immigrant formerly trained at the Fine Arts Academy in Vienna, then Munich Academy of Fine Arts.  After serving as lieutenant in the Austrian Army in World War I he arrived in New York City.  In a lecture he gave at New York University, just prior to heading west to take on new assignments on the west coast, Katz described how Diego Rivera and Clements Orozco were taking the art world by storm.

It is because they have turned from the classical aesthetics to living creation, inspired by nature and reflecting a fact to face contact with the divine power and the heart.

Katz idolized Orozco and was known to tell a story about Orozco who in 1911 lost his left arm in a chemical explosion. “It was then he said, “Now I can become a painter.”

Katz traveled to Los Angeles to teach at the Chouinard School and to take on the Wiggins mural project.  The theme was centered on the historic uses of tools serving the creative and destructive passions of man within the context of the Toltec and Aztec cultures. Upon its completion, the mural faced public outrage and controversy due to its depictions of nudity and references to war in the central panel. Shortly after its completion, in 1935, it was taken down and over the course of the next 4 years all the panels were eventually returned to the Public Works Administration.

 

Although Lehman, along with Kadish and Guston were eventually fired from this assignment, he was not discouraged.  Looking forward to working on more murals, he returned to New York to participate in the next Federal program, the Works Progress Administration public works art project.

Photograph of Harold Lehman taken by Leo Katz in Los Angeles in 1934.

Frank Wiggins Trade School Mural.  Left side by Reuben Kadish, right side by Harold Lehman. 1934. 

Frank Wiggins Trade School Mural.  Center panel by Leo Katz, 1934. 

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Loses Arm  - "Now I can be an artist."
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