Hidden in the Wilson High School auditorium is a gem of local history and art.
This gem is a stage-sized fire curtain colorfully painted with a mural that depicts students studying, socializing and walking in graduation gowns towards a horizon. Because this fire curtain is often rolled up and out of sight, many people — even its school principals — did not know that it existed.
The painting was created as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal that helped funnel money into cities in an effort to ease the effects of the Great Depression.
As part of the WPA, Long Beach received more than $2 million a year to help pay for projects that put people back to work. While a lot of that money went to infrastructure improvements, some also went to creative endeavors.
“Artists, painters, writers, they all needed to eat,” said Maureen Neeley, advisor for the Historical Society of Long Beach. “The federal government did not dictate, it just said paint, sculpt.”
All throughout the city, artwork can be found with roots in the WPA funds effort to put everyone back to work.
Starting today (Friday), the Long Beach Historical Society will feature an exhibit called “Rebuilding for the Future: A New Deal for Long Beach 1933-1942” that showcases the artwork, as well as samples of other WPA creative efforts. The exhibit is sponsored in part by a grant by the Long Beach Navy Memorial Heritage Association. A reception starts at 6:30 p.m. tonight at the Long Beach Historical Society, located at 4260 Atlantic Ave.
According to Neeley, the idea to showcase the work that was created during the Great Depression has been decades in the making, and began with the work of Douglas M. Hinkey, who documented the art in his book “Federal Art in Long Beach: A Heritage Rediscovered.” His widow, Scottie Hinkey, donated her husband’s archives to the historical society, and those archives, coupled with old files from the city manager’s office, led to a discovery that showcases the work of all Long Beach citizens, from construction workers, to clothing makers and artists.
“This story longed to be told,” Neeley said. “With the exhibit, we want to tell the story as much as we can in a visual way.”
The timing for these WPA-funded projects was particularly significant because of the 6.3 magnitude earthquake that hit Long Beach in 1933. The earthquake left parts of the city in rubble and residents were anxious to bring their city back to what it was, Neeley said.
Some of the significant WPA projects can be found on the St. Mary Medical Center building, the Veterans’ Memorial building and City Hall. Most of the artwork, though, can be found in schools, specifically, Jefferson Middle School, Naples Elementary School, Fremont Elementary School, Lowell Elementary School, Rogers Middle School and Wilson High School.
To capture the art and exhibit it, photographer Christopher Launi volunteered his services. As part of the project, he photographed the federal art and helped to put the images onto a canvas. The result is canvases that appear as if the painting was directly painted onto the canvas.
“With this method, the photography takes on a painterly look,” Launi said. “The idea was to make the art have a similar effect, and mimic what you’d actually see.”
Because a lot of the other WPA projects cannot be appreciated visually, the Historical Society is hosting several public programs throughout the rest of the year where lecturers will go into detail about how the New Deal helped to rebuild Long Beach and put its citizens back to work.
The first program is at 3 p.m. Saturday, July 23, and will feature Dr. Gray Brechin from UC Berkeley. Brechin will discuss how California benefitted from the New Deal.
On Aug. 5, the program will feature the Long Beach Museum of Art’s New Deal Easel Art Collection. On Sept. 2, the program will discuss Long Beach Unified School District’s New Deal projects. On Oct. 7, the program will discuss “Locals and the New Deal;” and on Nov. 4, the program will feature art and architecture at the Long Beach Airport.
For more information about the exhibit and the historical society, visit http://hslb.org/.
Gazettes.com | Cristina De Leon-Menjivar