How the WPA sustained artists and revitalized New Hampshire’s forests during the Great Depression
The Works Progress Administration gave jobs to unemployed Americans during the Great Depression. Artists Philip Guston and Musa McKim used the opportunity to depict New Hampshire’s forests.
The Currier Museum Art’s new exhibit, The WPA in NH, showcases two murals painted as part of the Works Progress Administration during the federal New Deal program. The murals were painted in 1941 by Phillip Guston and Musa McKim, a married couple.
The Laconia Forestry building originally displayed the paintings. Together, they depict the revitalization of New Hampshire forests thanks to sustainable logging practices.
NHPR Morning Edition host Rick Ganley went to the Currier to see the murals and talk with Senior Curator Kurt Sundstrom about the exhibit.
Kurt Sundstrom: So these are the two murals. They're really amazing.
Rick Ganley: It's framed beautifully with the entrance to the room. These are massive paintings, it's a very large scale. Can you describe the first one we're looking at here? We've got men and they're working saws. It looks like they're stacking lumber.
Kurt Sundstrom: Yeah. So these pictures are about 15 feet long and about six feet high. So they have a real presence. I mean, the figures in them are virtually life-size. This is by Philip Guston in 1941. And what is going on is that they were trying to suggest the way the Civilian Conservation Corps should conduct proper logging. So sustainable logging. And you'll see in this picture that not all the trees are cut down, as they did in the 1880s and 1890s, when really the natural resources of New Hampshire were decimated.
Rick Ganley: Really, so you would have looked out at that time and seen clear cut forests?
Kurt Sundstrom: Exactly, so you were having problems with erosion. The natural habitat for the animals were all destroyed. And so here we have this image of men working that was part of the New Deal. So the government was actually paying these men to help log. This was during the Depression when this picture was made.
Kurt Sundstrom: The artists here on the left with the men logging became one of the greatest painters of the mid-20th century. He was actually friends with Jackson Pollock. They went to high school together, and later they would go on to found the New York School of Abstract Expressionists. But at this period, Philip Guston was a muralist working in this wonderful tradition of storytelling that was very popular in the 1930s. He is telling the story of forestry in New Hampshire.
And if you look to the right, the picture on your right, which is the exact same size, but it's really sort of devoid of men working. It's a beautiful, lush landscape filled with all sorts of animals. So this picture on the right by Musa McKim is clearly a paradise in which all animals live in harmony, not just with themselves and among other animals, but also with humankind and with nature.
And this is what they were trying to achieve. They're trying to achieve and go back to this idea that New Hampshire is this idyllic landscape. It can be revived and renewed, and the beauty can be for all of us to enjoy, animals as well as people. And that was the message of the forestry building at that time in Laconia. So they're site-specific images.
Rick Ganley: So this first painting almost tells us the story of how conservation can be done, how forest forestry can be done sustainably. The second image saying, here's the result.
Exactly. So this is a husband and wife team. This is Musa McKim and Philip Guston, and they were married at the time. They're working in Woodstock, and you can see that they're almost communicating with each other because the paintings kind of communicate with each other. If you look here on the left, you have the men cutting down the logs. On the right, you have their counterpart, the beaver, taking down the log and he's doing it as sustainably. And so there's two or three stumps in the background, the exact same thing here on the left. It's about living in harmony with your landscape, and that's what the animals have taught the men to humanity.
And over here, it's almost like you stepped on a stick because all the animals sort of look at you. You have the moose in the background, the deer, the beaver, even the raccoon and the birds, the wood duck, and so on. They're almost staring at you, but they're also saying, you know, don't mess up my house anymore, right? And it's basically our responsibility to make sure that we don't mess up their home. But if we don't, we can also enjoy it as well.
Rick Ganley: These were painted as part of a commission for the Works Progress Administration. Can you tell us more about the history of the WPA here in New Hampshire?
Kurt Sundstrom: So what they did, in particular, the New Deal and the WPA, unemployment was huge at the time, it was a big problem. The economy was destroyed, and what the government did is they were paying people a nominal amount of money to work so they could put food on their table. So they hired artists, writers, poets, everybody, historians, whoever needed a job. And then here, you know, young men that didn't have work could become loggers. And this is how we sustained ourselves through a very difficult time in our history.
And these paintings are an example of what can come from federal programs that put people to work, especially artists. And Philip Guston will say this, and so will Musa McKim. This was his studying ground. This is where he became an artist. He was so grateful. Jackson Pollock worked for the WPA as well. All these artists in the Abstract Expressionist movement worked for the WPA, were funded by the WPA, and then out of that, they blossomed and we had the New York School. Without the WPA, these artists would not have had careers. So Philip, Guston particularly says he attributes his success to the WPA.
Rick Ganley: What do you hope that people take away as they walk through here and they pause and they're taking these paintings in?
Kurt Sundstrom: So first of all, aesthetically, we'd love for people to stop here and just appreciate the beauty and what great art can tell us. So great art tells us history. It's a window into New Hampshire's history, particularly these two pictures. I hope they come and pause and become inspired by what we did in the '40s: how New Hampshire changed and how New Hampshire is now into sustainable logging and our landscape.
I mean, I drive home to Concord every day, and on Friday it's packed with people from out of state. And the reason they're here from out of state is because of the picture on the right. We restored our landscape and now tourism is what we have. Here it is a sustainable economic, you know, outreach for us. So I think it's great. It's New Hampshire. It's inspiring and it's beautiful. So I hope people come in here and really enjoy it.