By Michael Maglaras
In my film “Enough to Live On: The Arts of the WPA” I make mention of the idea that, 80 years after the launch of the WPA, many communities across America still take particular pride in their surviving works from the WPA era.
These works may be in a post office, school, library, or other public space, and many times these works have been maintained and restored by engaged and concerned citizens, who have embraced the idea that when one of these works is lost through neglect or thoughtlessness, the life of each American is diminished.
If I remember correctly, I use the term “civic pride” in the film when I mention how these works that celebrate our return to prosperity from the depths of the Depression have been rescued and restored. There is no better example of this idea than the important work done by the Smith County Historical Society in Tyler, Texas.
When we gave the Texas premiere of Enough to Live On in Tyler, it was under the auspices of the Smith County Historical Society. For a New Englander, Texas is nothing short of a mysterious and miraculous place. It does and it doesn’t appear to be part of America. One is overwhelmed in Texas by the beauty of the landscape, the diversity of the people, the depth of historical perspective, and the warmth and hospitality of Texas citizens.
But in Tyler, Texas…and in particular at the Carnegie History Center…there is also another story: a Depression-era mural done under the auspices of the Public Works of Art Project by James Douthitt Wilson in 1934. A work of Depression-era art still in its original space. Still recognized by the citizens of Tyler as an important and valuable part of their community. Still valued as a reminder of who we once were and who we remain.
As we tour with Enough to Live On, many people come up to me after the screening to tell me about local works of art still on view, created more than 80 years ago under the Federal Art Project and the other projects that encouraged the creativity of Americans who were otherwise weighed down by the horror of the Great Depression. As audience members explain where these works are and describe them to me, there is a sense of wonderment and of deep appreciation in their eyes. This is something local. This is part of a shared heritage. This is part of what it means to have a sense of community.
Whether it be in Tyler, Texas or in any other town or city across America, it is this civic pride in a local example of art created during the Depression that resonates with me. These people get it. They also connect the work in their town with the work done in hundreds of towns across America between 1934 and 1941. They see themselves as a piece of the fabric of an effort to rebuild America, and they are rightly and justifiably proud.
The imperfection of the American Democracy is each day perfected through the strength of its citizens and through their belief in the binding force of their shared sense of community. Civic pride…civic values…the idea of citizenship continues to remain strong in Tyler, Texas. It’s an example for us all.