Commentary by Ward Degler
I just finished reading a novel by B.A. Shapiro that flooded me with memories. The story is called “The Muralist,” and it deals with a whole bunch of stuff that happened in the 1930s and ’40s.
It’s a work of fiction woven into the factual fabric of the Great Depression, the Works Projects Administration, or WPA, the lives of real artists in America and both real and fictitious Jewish refugees in Hitler’s Europe.
The WPA was established to provide work for Americans who were unable to find jobs during the Depression. Engineering crews built roads and dams. Foresters like my dad set up Civilian Conservation Corps camps to fight fires and plant trees in our national forests.
And famous artists such as Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner were paid $15 a month to paint murals to hang in public libraries and office buildings long before they became celebrated painters and founders of the American School of Abstract Expressionist Art.
I saw some of these works of art only years later, mostly in the halls of the Missouri State Capitol building in Jefferson City. One particular painting has always intrigued me. Like many other WPA paintings, it depicts the growth of a new nation. This particular painting shows a train coming out of a tunnel. The magic is, if you stand to the left of the painting, the train is coming toward you. Move to the right side, and the train is moving away. How did the artist do that?
Dad set up CCC camps in the North Woods of Wisconsin, where the mosquitoes could eat you alive in the summer, and in winter the water would freeze in our tea kettle. We lived in government houses or in places Dad rented near the camps. By Depression standards., he had a good job. Mom knew this, of course, and never hesitated to make a sandwich for some homeless wanderer looking for work. Often, a half dozen of these unfortunate men would line up every day on our driveway.
I started my artistic career back then, too, with crayons and scrap paper my dad picked up from a local printing company. Mom kept many of these “masterpieces” for years. Mercifully, when Dad retired and they moved to Arizona, most of them vanished.
Things I learned from those days include the realization that survival and achievement are closely related, and that both demand only the will to never give up. Shapiro’s book says it all.