Project chronicles Depression-era ‘treasures’

Seven students from LaGuardia Community College (LCC) are helping document Depression-era works of art in the borough of Queens.
The works that the commercial photography students have been focusing on were created as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a program from President Franklin D. Roosevelt created in May of 1935. According to the Greater Astoria Historical Society (GAHS), the purpose of WPA was “to help provide economic relief to the citizens of the United States who were suffering through the Great Depression.”
One of the divisions of WPA was the Federal Art Project, which resulted in more than 5,000 jobs for the country’s artists and over 225,000 works of art.
In Queens, some of these works can be found in public schools and libraries, hospitals, and air terminals. The participating LCC students – Zak Ahmed, Steven Chalmers, Krzysztof Choromanski, Elyse Hoffman, Youngkyu Park, Tyanne Rowe and Masai Suzuki – sought to document them.
“They are truly hidden treasures,” said photography professor and project director Javier Larenas. “Since they are located in the city, state and federally-owned buildings few people have access to them, and, those who do, do not realize their historic and artistic value.”
The project got its start when GAHS Executive Director Bob Singleton approached Larenas about having the students take the photographs for an exhibition honoring WPA’s 75th anniversary.
“This project is significant on so many levels. It connects inheritors of great artistic traditions that can be drawn upon for inspiration and technique,” Singleton said. “It also teaches society a valuable lesson. Although created in a time of economic uncertainty, government found the means to provide the ‘common man’ with uncommon art. It can, and should do that, again.”
In November, the students began photographing the 29 known WPA works in the borough, although two are now believed to have been destroyed. They have now completed 17 at locations like the Richmond Hill High School, Queens Borough Public Library, Queens College, and Grace Episcopal Church. The students also plan to photograph the remaining WPA works.
Steven Chalmers went to Astoria Boulevard and Hoyt Avenue, where he photographed a bronze sculpture of Columbus.
“I hope this project will bring the art work to people’s attention,” he said. “I am sure that the commuters running past it to catch their buses and trains did not know that this is a WPA work of art.”
Larenas said that this project showed the students the value of the WPA works and the important role they have placed in history.
“I believe if you challenge students not only will they rise to the challenge but they will surpass their own expectations,” he said. “They grew professionally has a result of this project.”
The students would also like to see the works restored, preserved and protected.
“We are looking forward to expanding this project and realize our important role that we have in our community,” Youngkyu said.
Images from the project are currently on display at the Greater Astoria Historical Society, which is located on the fourth floor of 35-20 Broadway in Long Island City. For more information on GAHS, visit www.astorialic.org. To find out more about LaGuardia Community College, visit www.laguardia.edu.

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