The New Deal’s Forgotten Art Form

“History of Transportation,” by Helen Lundeberg, 1039

“History of Transportation,” by Helen Lundeberg, 1039
This massive petrachrome mural in Inglewood, California was recently restored.

The Federal Art Project (FAP) encompassed a wide variety of art forms—from sculpture and fresco to oil-on-canvas and wood relief. However, few realize that an entirely new medium was invented by an FAP artist solely for use on public projects in Southern California.

American artist Stanton MacDonald-Wright first achieved prominence in the art world when he and fellow artist Morgan Russell co-founded the Synchromism movement, an approach to painting that analogized color to music. These works were among the first abstract paintings in American art.

During the 1930s, while MacDonald-Wright was in charge of the FAP in Southern California he devised an entirely new method of creating murals, which he called “petrachrome.”

The petrachrome process is significant not only to those interested in the New Deal but also to art historians in general. The process was similar in principle to a paint-by-numbers. Cement was first tinted with different pigments corresponding to the different sections of the mural. Next, crushed rock, glass, or tile was added to the mixture, which was then applied to the mural surface. Typically, the different color sections were delineated by strips of brass.

The colored cement was allowed to harden and then polished, creating a bold, striking appearance. Instead of a mural being painted onto a surface, the petrachrome process was designed so that the mural was the surface. Reports at the time claimed that the result “more enduring than marble” and “should last as long as the remaining great monuments of antiquity.”

Once the FAP was terminated in the early 1940s the petrachrome method seems to have disappeared completely, leaving only a handful of examples scattered around Southern California. The most celebrated of these is Helen Lundeberg’s “History of Transportation” in Inglewood. Recently the subject of an extensive renovation, Lundeberg’s mural is 8 feet tall and 240 feet long—making it one of the largest New Deal artworks in California.

Other examples of petrachrome murals can be found in San Diego’s Presidio Park, Santa Paula High School, Upland Elementary School, Santa Monica City Hall, and Canoga Park High School.

The majority of petrachrome murals still exist today. That they, by and large, remain in good condition is a testament to their resilience. I hope to publish a fully illustrated volume dedicated to preserving the legacy of MacDonald-Wright’s petrachrome process.

Recovering the Lost Art of the New Deal

Helen Lundeberg's three murals in the Bob Hope Patriotic Hall were completed in 1942 and have not been seen since the 1970s.

Patriotic Hall mural
Helen Lundeberg’s three murals in the Bob Hope Patriotic Hall were completed in 1942 and have not been seen since the 1970s.
Photo Credit: LA County Arts Commission

The Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), Federal Art Project (FAP), Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP), and the Treasury Section of Fine Arts— Depression-era programs that put artists to work nationwide— sparked a Renaissance in American art. These New Deal agencies commissioned thousands of murals, sculptures, paintings, carvings, mosaics, and more. Many of these works adorned the public domain.

The city of Los Angeles was richly endowed with New Deal artworks. Several, such as the statue of Florence Nightingale by David Edstrom in Lincoln Park, and Helen Lundeberg’s monumental, 240-foot-long mural, “History of Transportation” in Inglewood, have recently been restored to their former glory thanks to private and public benefactors.

There are, however, a startling number of Los Angeles’s New Deal artworks that have gone missing. The exact number is unknown, but could range from several dozen to well over a hundred.

Jason Herron's 1937 sculpture, Modern Youth, was presumed lost for decades when a Belmont High School employee noticed it in the school's basement. Today, it stands in the school’s foyer.

Modern Youth
Jason Herron’s 1937 sculpture, Modern Youth, was presumed lost for decades when a Belmont High School employee noticed it in the school’s basement. Today, it stands in the school’s foyer.
Photo Credit: Charles Epting

Recently, a coterie of New Deal enthusiasts formed Rediscovering WPA LA and established a website, The impetus for the effort was the rediscovery of Jason Herron’s 1937 “Modern Youth” sculpture at Belmont High School. Officially listed as stolen by the Smithsonian Institution, the statue had actually been hidden away in the school’s basement for decades until a school employee stumbled upon it a few years ago.

Undoubtedly, other public artworks have met a similar fate—murals rolled up and forgotten; sculptures and paintings that were removed to storage that never reemerged.

Rediscovering WPA LA is trying to determine the fate of Los Angeles’s long-lost federal art. Scouring county records, newspapers, and other sources, they came up with a comprehensive list of the New Deal art commissioned in Los Angeles County. They pared the list to a kind of “Ten Most Wanted”—those artworks having cultural or historic significance and a strong chance of being recovered—and posted them online.

The goal is to find and return these pieces to public prominence. Any tips and financial support in this endeavor would be much appreciated!

Rediscovering Oral Histories of the WPA

The WPA collected oral histories of early Orange County residents.

Boarding House, Laguna Beach, Calif.
The WPA collected oral histories of early Orange County residents.

Although most widely remembered for its construction and art projects, another of the WPA’s missions was putting unemployed historians and writers back to work.  In Orange County, California, this materialized in the form of WPA Project #3105—an exhaustive chronicling of the county’s history, told through diverse topics such as fashion, transportation, architecture, irrigation, and sports.

WPA Project #3105 can be found—with dedicated searching—in the collections of the Santa Ana Public Library. While all two-dozen volumes contain valuable information, a standout is titled “Pioneer Tales.”

An 1880 sketch of Newport Bay preserved by the WPA.

McFadden’s Wharf
An 1880 sketch of Newport Bay preserved by the WPA.

“Pioneer Tales” contains several hundred pages of oral histories compiled by WPA employees. The interviews, conducted in 1935 and 1936, document the stories of the county’s first settlers, many of whom moved to California during the 1870s and 1880s. Had the WPA not captured their stories, many of these pioneers’ would never have had the chance to share their colorful recollections with subsequent generations.

“Pioneer Tales,” like all of Project #3105, was never published to a wide audience. In fact, only two copies are known to exist.  Yet, some 80 years after they were compiled, the stories remain both historically important and entertaining to the modern reader.

Orange County—a quintessential suburbia today—has history replete with bullfights, lynching, and shoot-outs. Pioneer James McMillan, for example, told the story of a steamship that was wrecked in Newport Bay. It was only through his heroic rescue that the crew was saved. In his oral history, J.E. Parker recalled the massive Mexican fiestas on the ranchos in the days before Orange County had seceded from Los Angeles. Perhaps the most harrowing tale came from Mr. N.T. Wood, who described in detail his near-death encounter with a grizzly bear in one of Orange County’s canyons.

The WPA collected stories about the county’s early settlers.

The MacMillan Family
The WPA collected stories about the county’s early settlers.

There is no doubt that many communities across America had similar historical projects funded by the WPA. Who knows how many volumes of WPA writings are now languishing in libraries—their pages crumbling like those of Project #3105—at risk of being lost forever. Thousands of pages of Project #3105 have yet to be transcribed from the original typewritten manuscripts, so the project’s contribution to the historical record remains virtually unknown.

Putting such historical WPA works into the hands of readers and researchers is a step in the right direction. Efforts to preserve WPA artworks and structures for future generations are underway in cities and towns across America; shouldn’t the same attention be paid to preserving the written word of the WPA?