Filed Under Great Depression

WPA Art at Oxford School

Tucked away in a Cleveland Heights neighborhood is a whimsical trove of 1930s federal art. Thousands of students and hundreds of teachers who walked daily through the halls and library of Oxford Elementary School have passed by these beautiful pieces of art.

During the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt developed a variety of programs to provide work relief for millions of needy Americans. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Art Project (FAP) put local artists to work creating murals, sculpture and ceramics using the "American Scene" for inspiration.

Under the direction of the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Cleveland Public Library, the Cleveland FAP employed needy artists adorning schools and public buildings throughout Greater Cleveland. The Cleveland Heights school district requested works pertaining to children's themes and the American Scene during the late 1930s and 1940s. Oxford Elementary received funding for two murals, two hydrocals, and thirty-five ceramics (though only some of the ceramics were completed).

In 1941, artists LeRoy Flint and Henry Olmer, inspired by the history of Cleveland, created a pair of relief panels for Oxford depicting "Agriculture" and "Industry." They were sculpted in clay, but cast in hydrocal, a type of extra-hard plaster. Cleveland Heights artist Edris Eckhardt guided the work of the Sculpture and Ceramics Division of Cleveland FAP.

In 1972 the school board approved a $19.5 million bond issue, which included the renovation of Oxford, thereby threatening its large Cinderella and Pied Piper of Hamlin murals. In the 1970s, the beauty and artistic value of Federal Art were just beginning to be recognized and scholars were searching for surviving pieces. Public pressure led to a reconsideration by the coordinating architects for the remodeling program. Oxford PTA president Donalene Poduska, with the help of principal James Evans and experts in American art, worked tirelessly to save the neglected Cinderella mural. At a time when only a fraction of the nation's federal art remains intact, a major project in 2000 restored and stabilized both of the Oxford murals.

Audio

WPA Ceramics Oxford PTA president Donalene Poduska describes the different WPA ceramics at Oxford Elementary School. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
Cinderella Mural Oxford PTA president Donalene Poduska tells the story of how the WPA art at Oxford Elementary was saved from damage during the school's restoration in the 1970s. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
Murals at Oxford Oxford PTA president Donalene Poduska talks about the differences between Oxford Elementary's murals and those at other local schools. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
Mural Restoration Oxford PTA president Donalene Poduska talks about the restoration of Oxford Elementary's murals. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
WPA Art Oxford PTA president Donalene Poduska tells how Roosevelt's support of artists and how WPA affected Cleveland and its artists. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
50th Anniversary Mural Oxford PTA president Donalene Poduska talks about Oxford Elementary's newest mural. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection

Images

Cinderella Mural Early in 1937, two murals done directly on the walls of the first floor corridor were executed at Oxford School by Gladys Carambella. These showed the stories of the Pied Piper of Hamlin and Cinderella in colorful detail. Image courtesy of Cleveland Heights Historical Society
Noble Surprise Recently, janitors at nearby Noble Elementary School made an exciting discovery: two large boxes filled with Federal Art Project pottery! Image courtesy of the City of Cleveland Heights
Cinderella In 2000, Oxford Elementary underwent yet another round of maintenance and renovation. The Intermuseum Conservation Association provided professional assessment and restoration of the murals. Glue used to adhere a protective covering over the murals in 1974 remained, discoloring Cinderella (shown here) and figures in Pied Piper. Photo courtesy of the Cleveland Heights Historical Society
The Pied Piper A grant from the Cleveland Foundation funded the protection of the murals, including one featuring the Pied Piper. Photo courtesy of Cleveland Heights Historical Society
The Tortoise and the Hare Artists Edris Eckhardt, Emilie Scrivens, Frank Gentot and Theresa DeVries created ceramics based on children's stories, taking inspiration from Tortoise and the Hare (seen here), Just So Stories, Alice in Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh and others. Image courtesy of Cleveland Heights Historical Society
Indian Family Artists Elizabeth Seaver, Grace Luse, John Tenkacs and Nils Hanson were inspired by the people, families and cultures found in America, creating works like "Indian Family" (shown here), "Eskimo Family," "Hiawatha" and "Johnny Appleseed." Image courtesy of Cleveland Heights Historical Society
Ceramics Another series of sculptures depicted the American family through the years. Image courtesy of Cleveland Heights Historical Society
'Modern Mural,' 1978 It is interesting to note that the Oxford FAP murals and ceramics inspired later generations of artists. Edris Eckhardt volunteered at the school helping students and parents create new art for many years. During the fiftieth anniversary of the school, in 1978, students painted a 'modern' mural depicting the school building, the owl located over the original entrance, the gardening program and reading. Image courtesy of the Cleveland Heights Historical Society
Federal Art Project Poster The Art Teaching Division of the Federal Art Project conducted art classes for children throughout the country. Even the posters advertising the classes can be considered works of art. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Location

Metadata

Mazie Adams, “WPA Art at Oxford School,” Cleveland Historical, accessed September 27, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/503.