Art at the Library: the Public Works of Art Project

~posted by Jade D.

L. H. Moller's Children Chasing Butterflies
L. H. Moller’s Children Chasing Butterflies

You may have noticed a few pieces of art when visiting your local library branch, but did you know that the Seattle Public Library has a rich collection of artwork featuring more than 300 pieces from Pacific Northwest artists? The library was one of the first locations in Seattle to offer a public art gallery and as a result, its art collection and connection with local artists grew. Today, some of the pieces of art are displayed at branches throughout the city and more are available for viewing through our Northwest Art Collection online.

Many of the pieces you can see in our online art collection were collected in the 1930s as a result of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), the first federally funded art initiative of its size, created to help support unemployed artists during the Great Depression.

Vera Engel's Houses from Old Denny Hill
Vera Engel’s Houses from Old Denny Hill

In return for a weekly wage, artists created murals, sculptures, paintings and other works of art to benefit civic institutions such as schools, courthouses, post offices, and – you guessed it – libraries. Although it only lasted from December 1933 to June 1934, the project had a lasting impact and was later followed by the Federal Arts Project (FAP), a similar program conducted by the Works Progress Administration which continued for several years. Together, these projects produced countless pieces of art and employed thousands of artists, causing some to refer to it as a renaissance period for American art.

E. Lap's Autumn
E. Lap’s Autumn

The thirties were an especially important decade in the Seattle arts community not only because of these federal programs, but also because of the opening of the Seattle Art Museum in 1933. Many pieces created for the PWAP were exhibited at SAM, allowing Seattleites to see the work that local artists produced before it was distributed to its final destination. The decade also saw the beginnings of the Northwest School, a prominent group of artists such as Mark Tobey, Guy Anderson, Morris Graves and Kenneth Callahan, that would later become internationally recognized. Many of these artists participated in the PWAP and FAP before their rise to fame.

Pencil Drawing by Ernest Norling
Pencil Drawing by Ernest Norling

The pieces created through the PWAP in the Library’s collection run the gamut from L.H. Moller’s idyllic “Children Chasing Butterflies,” to Vera Engel’s dramatic “Houses from Old Denny Hill,” to E. Lap’s vibrant “Autumn.” Some of my favorites are the pencil drawings created by Ernest Norling, which he produced while traveling to various Civilian Conservation Corps camps across Washington to document the federal projects underway. They show daily life in the camp, from preparing for dynamite blasts, to peeling potatoes, to gathering around the piano after a hard day’s work.

To see these pieces and many more, check out our Northwest Art Collection online. If you’d like to learn more about the art programs themselves or the Northwest School, take a look at this great reading list from the Library.

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