First on the scene, I was delighted to be invited to the soft premier Thursday night of Art for the People: Carl W. Peters and the Rochester WPA Murals at the Memorial Art Gallery, opened early to coincide with the University of Rochester’s Meliora Weekend. The exhibition highlights a group of recently restored mural studies by Rochester artist Carl W. Peters for 13 extant WPA murals, most of which were done for the Rochester City School District.
Having first discovered some of Peters’ WPA at Charlotte High School — so nobly saved by Charles Avino — I was treated to them all. Charlotte High’s unparalleled and almost lost murals
Roaming the three rooms filled with Peters’ work, along with other WPA related artifacts, I found myself awash in Peters’ panoramic vision and vistas, everywhere his characteristic florid, soft pastel tones ideally suited for the WPA motif: uplifting common American figures drawn together as bulwarks against the Depression outside the canvasses. And at every turn his imagined history of the Genesee River Valley region turned into illuminating pictorial myth.
To learn more about what I was seeing, I turned to Jessica Marten, MAG’s Curator in Charge/Curator of American Art.
As Jessica explained, she and many, many others labored for five years to bring the project to fruition. As Jessica gave her first tour at the premier, I sensed a mixture of relief, buoyancy and satisfaction, both personal and aesthetic.
The exhibit includes the group of preparatory mural studies, reproductions of the murals, a few landscape paintings by Carl W. Peters, archival materials that flesh out the WPA in Rochester, and a group of 13 WPA posters made in Rochester on loan from the Library of Congress
The seed for this exhibition was planted in April of 2009 when the Miller Family contacted MAG about a group of studies for WPA murals in Rochester by Carl W. Peters. (there is more information on this in the “Introduction” to the catalogue) Over the last six years, the museum was awarded grants to conserve the studies and embarked on extensive research into the Rochester WPA that delved into the many archives around Rochester, as well as the Library of Congress in D.C. and the National Archives in Maryland. Each opportunity for research and discovery had its highs and lows. Finding the photographs of Carl Peters and his assistants actually painting the murals – and in one case an assistant using one of the studies to help paint her the murals – was one of the exhilarating wins.
People should come to see the exhibition because this is your chance to see these incredible studies – charcoal, pastel, watercolor, graphite. They are absolutely beautiful drawings as well as truly fascinating and illuminating windows onto Peters’ artistic process. Through them we get to see Peters make decisions and change his mind about the subject matter, color, light, composition, etc. Not only are they lovely to look at and enlightening to see as a group, but they provide us with an view of life in our city in the 1930s. This is a Rochester story, but it is also an American story.
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