Uncovering Local Art and Industry: The Discovery of Hidden WPA-Era Murals at San Diego State University
Seth Mallios and Nicole J. Purvis
Two Works Progress Administration (WPA)-era murals from the 1930s, long thought to have been destroyed during subsequent building renovations, were uncovered in San Diego State University’s (SDSU) Hardy Memorial Tower in August of 2004. Local student artists Genevieve Burgeson Bredo and George Sorenson completed these murals in 1936 at the entrance and in the hallway of the old library at SDSU, known at the time as San Diego State College. Although portions of the murals were obliterated during construction from 1957-59, some of the artwork remained intact. Non-destructive tile maintenance during the summer of 2004 exposed the murals, which have since been resealed behind the lowered ceiling. This article offers a brief social history of WPA artwork and details the images within the two rediscovered murals.
The United States faced a socioeconomic crisis during the 1930s;
social and economic circumstances surrounding the Great Depression were
devastating for many Americans. In the four years following the record
stock market crash in October of 1929, the country’s gross national
product dropped by over a quarter, construction declined by over 75%,
and the unemployment rate rose from 3.2% to nearly a quarter of the nation’s
work force (Burner 1979:75; Webbink 1960:6-7). Drawing on recent success
in establishing the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (TERA) as
Governor of New York, newly elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
set his sights on creating federal relief programs (Morgan 1985:232).
He worked with Congress to tailor many of these projects to provide specific
aid for the nation’s 15 million unemployed individuals, many who
faced economic devastation compounded by the continuing failures of banks,
factories, and farms. The Works Progress Administration (WPA), the lead
federal work-relief entity, was established as part of the 1935 Emergency
Relief Appropriation Act (Bourne 1946:4). During their collective eight-year
tenure, WPA projects provided at least part-time employment for nearly
a fifth of the U.S. labor force (Branton 1991:iii).
Figure 2.1 Donal Hord’s black diorite carving of the SDSU Aztec mascot. Courtesy of Seth Mallios.
The thinking of students of the really thoughtful
type seems to indicate trends toward belief in the necessity of a planned
society, (away from rugged individualism), and toward a re-evaluation
of American ideals—a revulsion from the ideals of the post war [World
War I] boom which emphasized wealth, success and the “career”
man, back to the older American ideals of faith in the common man, equality
of opportunity, and tolerance and respect for the rights of weaker nations
Less than two months after his presidential inauguration in March of 1933, FDR received a letter from painter George Biddle, urging him to create federal support for unemployed American artists. Biddle, a friend and former classmate of President Roosevelt’s, explained the context and urgency of this opportunity. Reflecting on parallel events that led to the Mexican mural movement of the 1920s, he wrote, “The younger artists of America are conscious as they have never been of the social revolution that our country and civilization are going through; and they would be very eager to express these ideals in permanent art form if they were given the government’s co-operation” (Pohl 2002:364). The social and political awareness that Biddle described stemmed, at least in part, from the dramatic changes and hardships endured locally and globally. These themes inspired young artists and consequently dominated 1930’s WPA artwork. While the government instructed the artists they funded to raise the nation’s spirits through optimistic images of technological advances and perseverance, local artists often chose to focus their work on the lives of everyday Americans. Although there were clashes between the artists and their new patron—the government—a common compromise between propagandist governmental approval and idiosyncratic artistic integrity lay in the virtuous simplicity of common people, a celebration of hard work and dismissal of excess. Many of these artists endeavored “to elevate the ordinary and give it new meaning” (Park and Markowitz 1984:139).
This emphasis on the integrity of labor and laborers indirectly reified the artistic process. Artists received a weekly wage for work they produced for the government. This accountability transformed the artistic endeavor from what had been seen as an "expendable leisure-time activity” to a viable form of work (Pohl 2002:366). A multi-layered message of New Deal optimism was deeply imbedded in WPA art. The artists produced work and received compensation, like all other laborers. They celebrated the common laborer in their artwork. Furthermore, these images were showcased in the most ubiquitous forum of the time—the 1,100 new post offices across the nation (Park and Markowitz 1984:4). The government’s buoyant message was clear: hard work by each and every citizen would lead America back to prosperity.
The art styles and themes of Social Realism, Regionalism, and Historicism pervaded 1930’s WPA/FAP art. Social Realism often celebrated industrial workers as the heart of the nation, suggesting that America’s economic viability—its industrial might—rested on the broad shoulders of these rugged individuals. Artistic renderings depicting the strength of laborers also reflected the might of the labor movement during the 1930s (Pohl 2002:373-74). The power of unionized labor was formidable. In fact, in 1935 alone, nearly a third of all U.S. union-affiliated workers were involved in some sort of strike (Park and Markowitz 1984:4). Regionalism enabled local communities to maintain integrity and continuity in the face of the widespread federal relief action that was entirely centralized in Washington, D.C. Artwork celebrating the small-town farmer and other local entrepreneurs allowed for local pride and regional distinction under the auspices of federally mandated aid. Regionalism also served the government’s goal of promoting optimism and unity in times of economic hardship. The singular yet universalistic images of the farmer, the factory worker, etc. managed to bond fragmented communities and promote a common culture and history (Park and Markowitz 1984:3-9). Nonetheless, Historicism resulted in a careful retelling of the past that avoided contentious or divisive issues. WPA murals frequently kept the races separate and diminished women into subservient roles, negating the gains of women and ethnic minorities during the 1920s. Although much of the WPA’s art fell under the thematic rubrics of Social Realism, Regionalism, and Historicism, individual artistic agency and integrity often resulted in significant variation and multivalent symbolism.
SDSU WPA-Era Murals
In August of 2004, routine maintenance and replacement of ceiling tiles in San Diego State University’s Hardy Memorial Tower was interrupted by an unexpected find. During the removal of some ceiling tiles, workmen exposed partial remains of two WPA-era murals on the walls above the bottom floor of Hardy Memorial Tower, which was the school’s original library. Thought to have been entirely destroyed during building renovations in the late 1950s, the murals were hidden above the lowered ceiling-tile horizon on the wall adjacent to Hardy Memorial Tower offices 39, 41, 43, and 44, and across from offices 38 and 40. Most of the upper portions of the murals are present, but the bottom portions have been obliterated. Some of the upper portions have been chipped away as well, exposing plaster, wire mesh, and board-formed concrete walls. Conduit, electrical wires, and outlets are also attached in multiple places to the walls with the extant mural remnants, along with various sheet rock and plywood coverings. One of the two remaining murals faces west; the other faces north. Completion of the tile replacement in late August of 2004 resulted in the images again being sealed by the lowered ceiling and completely hidden from view.
SDSU’s University Archives has partial photographs of the two recently discovered murals. Edward Hess and Gordon Samples took several photographs of the building’s artwork before the 1957-59 renovations. Hess and Samples also photographed three other murals that were likely in very close proximity to the two that were recently uncovered at Hardy Memorial Tower. A cursory investigation of the nearby hallways produced no evidence of these other three murals, implying that they did not survive the building renovations. Nevertheless, further and more detailed searches for these additional historic murals are warranted.
Mural #1: NRA Packages
Figure 2.2 Photograph of Genevieve Burgeson Bredo’s
1936 mural, NRA Packages, uncovered during the 2004 ceiling-tile renovations.
Courtesy of Seth Mallios;
The more intact of the two murals is Genevieve Burgeson Bredo’s 1936 NRA Packages (Figure 2.2). It depicts three men unloading crates from a vehicle and carrying them to a corner store as a woman and child watch. The crates have the National Recovery Act emblem on their sides, a splayed blue eagle with the red letters “NRA” above (Figure 2.3). The vehicle is a yellow moving truck that reads “STORAGE” in large letters above “HILCREST 0212W” in smaller letters (Figure 2.4).
Figure 2.3 Close-up photograph of National Recovery Act emblem. Courtesy of Seth Mallios.
Figure 2.4 Close-up photograph of moving van inscription. Courtesy of Seth Mallios.
Figure 2.5 Close-up photograph of moving van license plate. Courtesy of Seth Mallios.
Social Realism permeates the mural. The men are engaged
in the hard work of everyday life as they unload the crates. Their large
hands, elongated arms, and powerful legs accentuate the laborious nature
of their actions. Even the limbs of the mother and child appear exaggerated
in the way she pulls her child’s arm upward. Like many WPA murals,
the sexes are depicted in separate realms; the men work and the women
and children watch. The NRA insignia was also a powerful symbol for the
working class in Social Realism art. Although not clearly designated on
the existing mural, the words “We Do Our Part” often accompanied
the emblem. The National Recovery Act created codes of fair competition
for business, established rules to prevent worker exploitation, and sought
to eliminate child labor. Since the government encouraged people to take
their business to stores that participated in this worker-friendly program,
producers and shop owners often displayed the NRA emblem on their goods
Figure 2.6 Howard Hess and Gordon Samples’ ca. 1959 photograph of Bredo’s NRA Packages mural. Courtesy of the San Diego State University Library, University Archives, Photograph Collection.
The SDSU University Archives contain a photograph that captures most of Bredo’s NRA Packages mural (Figure 2.6). Taken by Howard Hess and Gordon Samples in ca. 1959, the photograph is truncated on the right side and omits approximately one-third of the mural. It does not include the third man with the cart of boxes or the right half of the storefront. It does, however, contain parts of the mural that were destroyed, including a fire hydrant in the lower left corner, the first man’s rolled up pant cuffs, and the bottom half of the moving cart.
Mural #2: San Diego’s Industry
George Sorenson’s 1936 San Diego Industry depicts sequential stages in the local fish industry, including procurement, processing, and distribution (Figure 2.7a-c).
It runs from left to right. The extant portions of the mural contain about twenty people, although it is likely that the original artwork in its entirety contained many more individuals. The extreme left edge of the mural, which was largely destroyed, shows a man with a large rimmed hat who is fishing with a bamboo pole in his left hand (Figure 2.8).
Figure 2.8 Close-up photograph of first fisherman. Courtesy of Seth Mallios.
Figure 2.9 Close-up photograph of fish weigher. Courtesy of Seth Mallios.
Figure 2.10 Close-up photograph of fisherman
with beret. Courtesy of Seth Mallios.
At least two men are standing on opposite sides of the table that catches the fish for cleaning. Very little of the mural is intact for the next five feet to the right. Although a faint hand sketching of the mural is evident, nearly all of the painted detail is gone. There is a small, fully painted section that shows part of a person’s arm holding a gutted fish. The next extant portion depicts nearly a dozen women standing in two sets of assembly lines, one in the foreground and one in the background (Figure 2.12).
Although the eye-level perspective of the mural at this point hides the identity of what is being processed, the adjacent section to the right takes a bird’s-eye view, revealing the open cans of fish which the women have produced. Large canning machinery is in the background to the right of the assembly line. There is also a man working the many conveyor belts that are lined with short cylindrical cans (Figure 2.13).
Figure 2.13 Close-up photograph of man working the conveyor belts. Courtesy of Seth Mallios.
Figure 2.14 Close-up photograph of three Asian men. Courtesy of Seth Mallios.
Figure 2.15 Howard Hess and Gordon Samples’ ca. 1959 photograph of Sorenson’s San Diego Industry mural. Courtesy of the San Diego State University Library, University Archives, Photograph Collection.
Photographs of Three Other Hardy Memorial Tower Murals
SDSU’s University Archives also contains photographs of three other WPA-era murals once displayed in Hardy Memorial Tower. Each of these murals embodies the themes of Social Realism and Regionalization, depicting working-class labor in the local San Diego industries of lumber, orange production, and military service. The original murals were likely in close proximity to the two recently rediscovered murals and are thought to have been destroyed during pre-1960 building renovations. Hess and Samples took each snapshot in ca. 1959.
The first photograph of these additional murals is of Genevieve Burgeson Bredo’s 1936 Lumber Working (Figure 2.17).
It, like Sorenson’s fish mural, showcases the means of production—the
instruments and subjects of labor—that are inherent to the local
economy. Hess and Samples’ other photographs recorded the works
of Ellamarie Packard Woolley, a San Diego native, San Diego State art
student, and daughter of Phineas Packard, the founder of San Diego’s
Arts and Crafts Press. Woolley’s two 1936 Hardy Memorial Tower murals
are entitled Packing Oranges and Sailors Going to Hell. Packing Oranges
bears a striking resemblance to Bredo’s NRA Packages, as each contains
three broad-shouldered male workers in an urban setting, unloading goods
from a truck (Figure 2.18).
Figure 2.18 Howard Hess and Gordon Samples’ ca. 1959 photograph of Woolley’s 1936 Packing Oranges mural. Courtesy of the San Diego State University Library, University Archives, Photograph Collection.
Sailors Going to Hell is distinctive in its ominous imagery (Figure 2.19). For example, the ship’s far left cannon points directly at the downtrodden sailors as they board the vessel. Building on the maxim that war is hell, the mural’s ambiguous title hints that the ship is either headed to hell or the vessel itself is a hell on earth. Overall, these three additional murals further demonstrate how local artists at times addressed, embraced, and challenged the federal government’s guidelines for WPA/FAP artwork.
Much of San Diego State College was built by workers employed by WPA Projects
when it was moved to Montezuma Mesa in the 1930s. Contemporary murals
at Hardy Memorial Tower showcased the enduring spirit of these and other
laborers who toiled in local San Diego industries. This artwork both celebrated
and exemplified the spirit of the New Deal, illustrating the ability of
ordinary workers to help resuscitate the nation.
Bourne, Francis T.
Branton, Pamela Hart
Hardy, E. L.
McKinzie, Richard D.
Park, Marlene, and Gerald E. Markowitz
Pohl, Frances K.
San Diego Union