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Enough to Live On: The Arts of the WPA

In the depths of the Great Depression, president Franklin Delano Roosevelt took a bold stance in allocating federal money toward putting artists – artists! – on the U.S. government payroll. The legacy of that ambitious plan, the Works Progress Administration or WPA, gets examined in the engaging documentary Enough to Live On: The Arts of the WPA.

The WPA was a sprawling umbrella for a bunch of different federal programs – some accomplished basic things like road construction and building new structures. Others had a more vague purpose of putting people to work while boosting the morale of a cash-strapped citizenry. For Enough To Live On, writer-director Michael Maglaras focuses on the WPA’s arts programs, efforts that relied on the talents of visual artists, writers, performers and photographers. During the program’s glory years of roughly 1936-41, the arts programs resulted in hundreds of public murals, plays and musicals, sculpture, paintings, posters, educational texts and books providing a picturesque guide to the customs of all 48 states in the union. When one considers the fierce opposition the WPA faced during its entire lifespan, the sheer volume of what got accomplished is remarkable – and much of it still holds up (I still enjoy the historic murals at my local post office, for one).

Enough To Live On casts a wide net, packing a lot of info within 98 minutes. It’s a bit like an episode of PBS’s American Experience, although instead of a wide variety of expert commentary there’s just one historian and an older gentlemen who supplies eyewitness memories of volunteering for the WPA as a youth. Mostly it relies on Maglaras’ own narrative, a comprehensive historic overview with some subtle opining on what made the WPA succeed in its day and why it was important. Maglaras himself does the voice-over narration as well – I thought he conveyed a lot of gravitas, although my viewing partner found him self-important. The film delves into a lot of cool, relatively overlooked WPA projects, such as the Index of American Design, a cataloguing effort that required more than 20,000 detailed watercolor renderings of examples of classic design from America’s past. Famous names are mentioned here and there, although I most enjoyed hearing about lesser-known figures such as the African American sculptor Augusta Savage. The film is handsomely produced with plenty of examples of WPA art, presented in beautiful, color-saturated images. Come to think of it, the only thing better than this documentary would be for the WPA itself to come back.

The 217 Films DVD release of Enough to Live On: The Arts of the WPA sports great picture quality with sharp, detailed reproductions of the art being discussed. The dynamic visuals in the movie carry through to the package design, a slim digipack with appealing design used on the package and the accompanying 12-page booklet. The DVD is available for purchase at 217 Films or



WPA poster for Cleveland Housing Authority, unknown artist, c. 1939.

WPA poster for Cleveland Housing Authority, unknown artist, c. 1939.

Communication During the Period of Exploration, mural by Oscar Berninghaus in Phoenix, AZ post office, 1938.

Communication During the Period of Exploration, mural by Oscar Berninghaus in Phoenix, AZ post office, 1938.

Artist Augusta Savage with sculpture for the Federal Arts Project, c. 1938.

Artist Augusta Savage with sculpture for the Federal Arts Project, c. 1938.

Poster for Federal Theatre production Sing for Your Supper, c. 1938.

Poster for Federal Theatre production Sing for Your Supper, c. 1938.

Benjamin Sheer poster for WPA American Guide volume on California, c. 1940.

Benjamin Sheer poster for WPA American Guide volume on California, c. 1940.

A Peek Into 1940

Jeepers! Have you visited the fascinating 1940 U.S. Census website yet? The government customarily makes the census information public after a 72-year waiting period, which is why we’re seeing the 1940 one now. I believe this particular one is the first instance where all of the records have been placed online for easy perusal.

I went there to check out what they had on our house, a brick bungalow here in downtown Phoenix originally built in 1927. When I first moved here in 1996, I was informed that it had been a rental for about ten years, and for the previous 50 years before that it had been occupied by the same woman who once worked at the elementary school located half a block away. A few years later, Christopher and I used vintage phone books (back then, phone books included listings by both name and address) at the library to check up on the various occupants of the house over the years, finding out that the home wasn’t built in 1932 as the realtor informed us. This 1940 census adds a few other intriguing details about the house. As we already knew, the house was occupied by the school teacher, a woman named Kathryn. What surprised us was that Kathryn is listed as living here with her parents, Emil and Minnie – AND another woman named Bernice, who is listed as a housekeeper (whether she tended to the folks in our house or someone else’s is unknown). That’s a lot of people living in a dwelling that was then less than 1,000 square feet big! Another mystery is that Kathryn, who was 35 at the time, is listed as having no job. Bernice was the only employed person in the house, having made a grand total of $40 in 1939.

Another interesting thing we uncovered in this census is that the house next door to us, which we’ve always referred to as the “lesbian house” for its long string of same-sex couple occupants, was occupied by two women in 1940. One is listed as the head of the household, while the other is listed as the “Partner.”

The Plastic Conundrum

Could you live for a day without plastic? How about a week? Last August, Readymade magazine’s online editor Katherine Sharpe tried forgoing plastic for seven days. Here’s the conclusion of her report. It really makes you think about how much plastics invade our lives, and how one can take simple steps to eliminate the stuff in certain areas (even if you can’t totally avoid it). For example, it always makes me cringe when we put bananas in a plastic bag at the supermarket. Why bag bananas?

In the comments of that blog entry, there’s a link to the site of Chris Jordan, an artist-photographer who visualizes what we humans consume in thought provoking ways. Worth a look!

Wheels on Fire, Burning Down the Road

Welcome to our latest acquisition (Price Is Right voice) — a new car! This 2005 Pontiac Grand Prix was among the fleet of company cars for the place where Christopher works. When they came up for sale, we thought long and hard and decided to go for it. I loved my trusty old ’97 Geo Metro (a hand-me-down from Christopher), but it was getting to the point where it was rattling, the AC didn’t work right, etc. So it was with a heavy heart that we donated the old vehicle to a local charity for the blind. This Pontiac is nice and sturdy, bigger than what I’m usually used to but very nimble and smooth on the road. Design-wise, I had this impression that Pontiacs were the cars made for dudes who think a framed Nagel print was the height of cool. This particular model is not too bad looking, however. Stylish, even.


Those Are People Who Died, Died

I was in the middle of reading about the fascinating people profiled in the annual Lives They Lived issue of the New York Times Magazine when I heard shocking news about the passing of another fascinating person. One that I knew, actually: Brad Graham of It appears that he died in his sleep of natural causes on December 31st, at the young age of 41. Yeah, I don’t believe it, either.

Brad was one of the earliest bloggers I knew of, and pretty much the kingpin of the (small) community of gay bloggers around in the early ’00s. Back then it was such a thrill to be writing on the net, and having someone else noticing what you were doing was an even bigger thrill — especially when that someone was as friendly and witty as Brad. His August 3, 2001 post, using the first Scrubbles redesign to explore childhood fear of Dow Scrubbing Bubbles, was typical Brad. We weren’t close friends or anything, but his warmth and humor was something I treasured over the years (we even briefly bonded over the ’70s kiddie-com Big John, Little John on twitter last year). I’ll miss you, Brad.

Viva Lost Wages

The Gambler Who Blew $127 Million, a Wall Street Journal article via News From Me. I just got back from a three day stay in Las Vegas (details to come later). This article makes me feel better for the piddly sum that I lost.