Sunday, February 1, 2015

Historic WPA Murals in Rochester, New York Preserved in Photos



Connecticut-based filmmakers Michael Maglaras and Terri Templeton of 217 Films have collaborated with the Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Rochester to photograph and digitize two historic Works Progress Administration murals painted in Rochester by Carl W. Peters.

“Life of Action” and “Life of Contemplation,” important works of art from the WPA era, are showcased in the new film “Enough to Live On: The Arts of the WPA,” which will be released by 217 Films in May 2015.

The segment in the film featuring these murals and the remarkable photography process used to capture them for posterity can be viewed at this link.

Peters painted these two murals, each more than 22 feet high, in 1937 for the then-existing Madison High School. Over the course of 8 months, Peters created these murals using several students and teachers as models.  When Madison High was torn down in the 1980s, the murals were rescued and restored, preserving an important part of the legacy of the New Deal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“I was determined to use these magnificent examples of the art of the WPA in my new film, but we encountered a serious challenge” said Michael Maglaras, the film’s writer and director. “These murals are preserved behind glass, and I thought would be impossible to photograph. We joint-ventured with the Memorial Art Gallery to hire the wonderful Rochester photography firm Fotowerks, who painstakingly lit and photographed every inch of these murals for us, directly through the protective glass. The result was quite simply that they achieved the impossible.”

“What’s also notable,” remarked Maglaras, “is that many of the original sketches done by Carl Peters for these two murals are in the permanent collection of the Memorial Art Gallery. So we have had the good fortune of being able to use, in our film, both the sketches that Peters created…as his ideas were formed for these murals…and the final works themselves. For a filmmaker, this has been the ideal experience.”

“We at 217 Films are delighted to contribute to Carl W. Peters’s legacy by photographing and digitizing these works for future generations,” continued Maglaras. “The people of Rochester, New York are well-known for their commitment to the arts…the two Peters murals were worth saving and have been saved because of that kind of commitment.”

Enough to Live On: The Arts of the WPA” celebrates the 80th anniversary of  “Federal Project Number One” – the initiative that launched the Federal Art Project in 1935 and put thousands of creative people to work across America.


As the effects of the Great Depression swept the American nation, with millions out of work and a national sense of despair, the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt adopted a novel idea:  to put painters, sculptors, photographers, and writers, as well as actors and dancers, to work, and to place them on the government payroll.  On May 6, 1935, FDR signed Executive Order 7034, creating the Works Progress Administration.  And on August 2, 1935 “Federal Project Number One” was created.  As some Americans went back to work under the WPA, among those workers included painters as diverse as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Marsden Hartley; photographers such as Berenice Abbott; actors such as Orson Welles; and writers such as Saul Bellow and Zora Neale Hurston.  The result of paying creative Americans to work at what they did best resulted in an explosion of new art throughout the country and has had a lasting influence, 80 years later, on the way Americans view themselves and the role of government in the support of the arts and in the furtherance of a civil society.