The Westmoreland Museum of American Art pays homage to American workers
Nineteen pieces from the works on paper collection at The Westmoreland Museum of American Art — which are rare seen on exhibit because of their susceptibility to damage from light — currently make up the exhibit “America Works.”
Featuring images of steel workers, coal miners and farmers, the exhibit is a tribute to American labor, past and present, says the museum's chief curator, Barbara Jones.
“We wanted to do something in concert with Inauguration Day, the idea of America being great, and knowing that America has always been great,” she says. “The labor force in this country has always worked to make America great, so we wanted to celebrate the worker in America.”
The first piece visitors will likely come upon is “Laborer,” a raw emotionally charged ink-wash drawing of a skullcap-wearing steelworker by Elizabeth Olds (1896-1991). Drawn in the mid-1930s, as evidenced by its bold definitive lines — an economy of means that speaks of the Modernist movement — one can see, clearly defined, the strain of the subject's job, reflected in lean, muscular features.
Likewise, “Steel Workers” (1942) by Earl Washington (1862-1952) depicts the intense heat and conditions workers suffered at the crucibles of the giant steel mills that once dotted our local landscape. An African-American artist, his subjects also are African-Americans in this woodcut print.
Two prints by Michael Gallagher (1895-1965) are real standout pieces. Gallagher was director of the Philadelphia Works Progress Administration's Printmaking Workshop. There, along with fellow artists Dox Thrash (1892-1965) and Hugh Mesibov (1916-2016), he was instrumental in the development of a new intaglio process, the carborundum print.
His piece “The Toilers,” which depicts a farmer and his wife taking a break from their labors, is an early example of the printmaking technique. And his other work on display, a lithograph entitled “Coal Town,” depicts a coal patch just outside of his native Scranton.
Born to a mining family, Gallagher was unable to follow in his family's footsteps and become a miner because he suffered from tuberculosis as a child. Instead, through his art, he called attention to those miners in his community who toiled underground.
In similar fashion, “Mill Workers” from 1930 by William Robert Shulgold (1897-1989) depicts a steel town — Pittsburgh — where Shulgold, a Russian immigrant, lived from 1929-1935.
Otto Kuhler (1894-1977) is another artist known to have lived in Pittsburgh for a spell. At the center of the exhibition is a series of five etchings created by him that accurately describe the process of constructing a steam locomotive.
In works like “Iron Horse in the Making,” he contrasts the colossal size of the locomotive to the miniature scale of the men who built it, referring to them as “little human ants that crawl all over them.”
In the final two etchings of the series, “The First Breath” and “The First Step,” Kuhler attributes human characteristics to the machine: “New and shiny and awkwardly proud, they blink out into the daylight for the first time thru (sic) that great open door, when they dare their careful first step and walk out under their own man-made and man-controlled power, then a new, powerful servant to mankind is born.” (from preface by the artist in “The Iron Horse in the Making” (New York: Schwartz Galleries, June 1930).
Finally, Robert Lepper's (1906-1991) “Study for the Mural at Mineral Sciences Building” brings the exhibit full-circle.
Here, the legendary Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University) art professor represents the coal and gas activity in 1940, when the mural was commissioned by West Virginia University to be included in what was then the new Mineral Industries Building.
Divided into five areas, from left to right — extraction of coal and gas; tools and techniques of the trades; glass and ceramics industries; cleaning and sizing operations; and resulting commercial products — the mural was conceived by the artist to dramatize the importance of West Virginia's mineral industries.
The exhibit also includes another 26 works pictured on a video monitor in the space.
“Some are sculptures and some are paintings on view upstairs,” Jones says. “So, there is more to see, giving the subject more depth.”
“With these works of art — from steel workers risking life and limb in the mills and miners excavating coal from the depths of the earth, to a blacksmith at his forge, fishermen hauling in their catch of the day or the myriad other jobs not depicted here — we pay tribute to every worker.”
Kurt Shaw is the Tribune-Review art critic.