Saturday, August 29, 2009

Jobs, forgotten Ilya Bolotowsky mural, Williamsburg, and the WPA

This morning I spoke with a women about a job. Yes, you read that correctly... A job! On September 8th, it'll have been a year since I was laid off. That said, I've had an amazing time 'working' for myself: writing; embroidering; obtaining freelance gigs. I thank my lucky stars for unemployment checks, as well as friends and family who have given me support! But folks, it's time...

Anyway, I won't go into the job title yet, or what it might entail. Let's just say it's in the arts, is aligned with my interests, and is something that I think would make me very happy. Please cross your fingers for me!

After my meeting this morning, I went to a friend's place to hang out with a little gang of people (basically the two of us and our kids). Immediately, I asked to sit at her computer, wanting nothing more than to do some research on some of the artists represented by the woman I interviewed with this morning. Hours passed...

Although I knew artist Ilya Bolotowsy's work, I hadn't realized that he had made the first abstract mural commissioned by the U.S., via the WPA program, for the Williamsburg Housing Project at Maujer and Scholes. One look at the mural, made in 1936, and it's clear that Miro was an enormous inspiration. Just a few years later, in 1940, Mondrian moved to New York, and would have a profound influence on Bolotowsky. Although Bolotowsky, as one of the founding members of the American Abstract Artists, was already embracing non-objective subjects, it was really Mondrian's work that prompted the artist to eliminate all references to nature. The mural Bolotowsky made, then, is an example of some of his early work.

The mural, painted in what would eventually become the recreation room for the building, was eventually painted over and forgotten. Yet, in 1988, the mural was 'rediscovered', and subsequently, restored by Hudson + Salah Art Conservation Studios.

See below:

Above: The mural as it was found in an abandoned recreation room in the Williamsburg Housing Project. Some of the design elements are visible in the background behind the graffiti. The mural was faced then removed from the wall with pneumatic chisels, the back of the canvas cleaned off. The old wall paint was removed from the face of the original composition. The mural was lined, filled, inpainted and varnish.

Below: the completed mural

(descriptions by Hudson + Salah)

All of this has me thinking about jobs, being an unemployed artist, and the depression-era WPA Program. The FAP was the part of the WPA dedicated to visual arts, hired artists to make over 200,000 posters, paintings and murals. The program employed starving artists and provided much of the public art that is still a great source of pride for the country. In 1940, the WPA changed policy and began vocational training of the unemployed to make them ready for factory jobs. Gone were the days when it paid to be an artist...

Anyway, all of this reminds me of when Obama used to talk about starting another work program. Remember that? What happened to it? Sure, there's the Stimulus Package... money has been flying around... But where? Well, here's the website about how Obama's Recovery Act is being implemented in New York. Here's the list of Federal Grant Opportunities in NY. Some of the competitive grants even seem to go for good causes, such as this one, listed under the heading of the Department of Education: 84.384 Institute of Education Sciences; (IES) Grant Program for Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems Recovery Act Program (ARRA). That mouthful of a grant must be pretty awesome to be given such a long name, don't you think?

Whoa, but grants don't stop at the federal level. There is also something called the NY State Innovation Economy Matching Grants Program, in which funds will be parceled to "strategic technology areas that have been identified as crucial to the expansion of the State's economy." Among these areas are listed: renewable energy, clean tech and smart grid; nanotechnology; stem cell, biomedical and life sciences; advanced manufacturing; broadband; information technology and cyber security. Many of these areas seem great, but I'm interested in seeing who will be the recipients of the grants...

All this leaves me wondering what happened to the work program Obama once spoke of. Not that I'm missing out on receiving any of the benefits from Obama's stimulus... Why, I think it's pretty cool that I received something in the mail letting me know that I'm eligible for an increase in a Pell Grant. And I love that I've been receiving an extra $25 a week along with my unemployment (an emergency check, they call it). Believe me, I'm not knocking it... I NEED it! But I haven't seen much inthe way of work from the government... I was told at the unemployment office that I'm "too specialized." Apparently, one whom has worked in marketing, bartending, art-making, writing, editing, design, museums, galleries, and finance (among other things), is too specialized. Go figure...

I think back about the WPA, which employed millions of people, and left behind not only wide ribbons of highways and public buildings built by all who were able to work, as well as many established arts, theater and literacy programs that had been started by some of the country's most talented minds. There was something for each person, according to his (or in the rare case, her) expertise. Even if one had no known skills and was given a job in manual labor, it wasn't too terrible... A rule of the program stated that workers couldn't work longer than 30 hours a week. Not a bad policy for families, right? Granted, not that many women were employed by the program, but hey, the program was started in 1935, after all. (The government believed one parent should work while one stayed home with the children... As a single mom who has struggled, this no longer sounds like such a rotten idea... I'm only sort of kidding.)

Opponents of the WPA program sarcastically referred to it as the "Whistle, Piss and Argue Gang," as well as "We Piddle Along." These names referenced the fact that jobs were given to anyone who needed, well, a job, but mostly that workers were still paid even if a project was put on hold by the government. Um, maybe I'm crazy, but this just sounds like insurance- if a job was to suddenly end, a worker would still be able to put food on the table for his/her family. But apparently this was a problem? (I guess the opposition wanted jobs to go to the folks who didn't need them... Sort of how our government currently pays many private contracting firms rather than public/state workers.)

OK, this post is all over the place... I started off talking about how I had met with a women about a potential job, to Ilya Bolotowsky's long forgotten about mural, to the WPA, to the questions I have about the current state of governmental affairs.

I'm super excited about the possible job, and can't wait to see what comes of it. In the meanwhile, I'll continue to study up on some artists... Who knows, perhaps my studies will supply me with even more ramblings for the blog!

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