By Cori Bolger,
POSTED: September 22, 2008

"New exhibit showcases art from 1930s"

HUNTINGDON - Ben Abramowitz remembers the Great Depression as a bleak time in New York City, when thousands of unemployed residents waited in line for a chance to work.
But for Abramowitz, then in his 20s, the experience living through the era wasn't so terrible.

The Works Progress Administration relief agency paid him $23 a week to create art from a loft studio and jump-start a career as a working artist.

''The WPA was a very gratifying outfit, even when we couldn't do exactly what we wanted,'' he said.

Under President Roosevelt's New Deal Program, the WPA created thousands of public art projects and hired artists to create works that reflected the democratic ideals of American life at the time.

A number of those graphic prints - lithographs, etchings, woodcuts and aquatints - are part of the Amity Art Foundation Collection on display at the Juniata College Museum of Art through Nov. 1.

Judy Maloney, museum director, said a historical interest in the Depression is what initially drew her to the exhibit.

''The government recognized the need to give people an opportunity to work and be themselves, to do what fit their identity and live with dignity, and that's pretty amazing,'' she said.

Artists could submit an idea or early sketch, and the WPA would approve or reject it.

''The government didn't tell you what to do, but they didn't want it to be radical,'' Abramowitz said. ''The government was afraid of radical, abstract art and political comment.''

Artists captured images of industry, farming, work and play in rural and urban settings by picking easily recognizable subjects that struck an emotional chord with the viewer.

Some of the pieces, including a black-and-white print of a starving abandoned cow, reflect the hardships of the time. Others, like a colored print of flowers, seem to offer a more optimistic point of view.

Abramowitz, now 92 and the last surviving artist in the exhibit, visited the opening reception and implored others to make their lives exciting.

''Even when you hold someone's hand, do it in an exciting way,'' he said.
Abramowitz, who used the name Ben Hoffman as a WPA artist, is represented in the exhibit by his lithograph ''Children at Play.'' The work was inspired by a ''romantic notion of children,'' he said.

He said the names of the other artists in the WPA exhibit sound familiar, but he was not friends with any of them during the Depression.

''Some of these pieces wouldn't get into a contemporary museum,'' he said. ''I'm glad there's a collector out there that buys the work.''

No longer a working artist, Abramowitz gets around with the help of a walker and his eyesight is waning, making it difficult to see the fine details of his work.

Still, he's thankful for a long career as an artist and college lecturer, and he still shows work in several galleries in Washington, D.C., where he lives.

''When I look back 70 years, I think I did quite well,'' Abramowitz said. ''But it's a hunger that's never satisfied.''