“Ben Shahn’s WPA mural planned for the Rikers Island Penitentiary mess hall was rejected in 1935, the year the prison opened.
Harold Lehman’s WPA mural “Man’s Daily Bread” was mounted there instead circa 1936 but was removed decades later.
Thus in a sense, both the planned Shahn mural and the actual Lehman mural could be counted as two murals “missing” in Rikers Island Penitentiary WPA art history.
Considerably worse for wear but not missing is a third Rikers Island Penitentiary WPA mural: Anton Refregier’s “Home and the Family.”
Its presence enhances the historic landmark character of NYC’s oldest structure in continuous correction-related use.
In 1937 when Refregier painted his oil-on-canvas mural for the Rikers Island Penitentiary visitors room wall, the larger-than-life scene looked out on a big room whose occupants could view it full spectrum.
The Moscow-born artist painted it under the Federal Art Projects (FAP), part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
During the Depression, the WPA was an agency that initiated and oversaw various emergency employment programs.
Subsidizing artists to paint scenes on governmental building walls was one of WPA’s more high profile activities.
The Rikers mural reflects a frequent WPA art theme: By working together — whether on a farm, in a forest, or in industry — people can build a better life for themselves, their family, their country.
When the Rikers Island Penitentiary visitors area decades later was relocated elsewhere, the big room with the mural was partitioned into offices accessed via a narrow corridor.
Since then the mural has looked down on a passageway not wide enough for photographing the entire painted scene in a single camera shot.
The canvas shows some graffiti markings as well as stray streaks and splatter from past paintings of overhanging pipes, adjacent doorframes, walls and ceiling.
In March 2006, for a segment of a planned “Jails of NY” show in its Secrets of NY series, NYCTV Original Productions filmed the Anton Refregier WPA mural in the James A. Thomas Center, formerly known as the Rikers Island Penitentiary.”
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