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Surrounded by History, Woodhill Residents Create Art For The Present

A detail of a new mural created by Woodhill residents and neighbors. [Mary Fecteau / ideastream]
A detail of a new mural created by Woodhill residents and neighbors.

Public art is everywhere at Woodhill Homes — much of it historic, dating from the 1930s and 1940s.

A panel on a building shows a woman hoisting a basket of fruit above her head. In the community center gym, WPA murals cover the walls, showing scenes of everyday life from when the complex was built. But for the public housing development's current residents, what the art doesn't depict is just as noticeable as what it does.

"We don't have people of color," says Woodhill resident Marilyn Burns. "This is fine art, this was probably fantastic art [when it was installed], but we want something representative of our community."

An outdoor panel at Woodhill shows a woman holding a baby. [Mary Fecteau / ideastream]

The fact that all or most of the people in the murals are white is driven by Woodhill’s history. When it first opened, almost everyone who lived there was white. Now, all but eight of the 916 residents are African American.

Woodhill resident Marilyn Burns sees the mismatch between the neighborhood's public art and its current residents. [Mary Fecteau / ideastream]

"This is now 2019," Burns says. "So we need to see from then to now. Because it's become more diverse. And we want art depicting these times right now."

Burns says residents don’t want to replace or change the old art, "but to add to it, to be diverse."

A detail from a mural in the community center gym shows athletes playing baseball. [Mary Fecteau / ideastream]

A Historic Legacy

When Woodhill was built in the late 1930s, the federal government was practically raining public art down on the nation. Over a few years, it spent $35 million — more than half a billion dollars in today’s money — on the Federal Art Project, one of the programs of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

In all, the government hired about 10,000 artists to make hundreds of thousands of murals, paintings and sculptures. 

"These reproductions of the American scene of today will make this one of the most fertile periods of our country’s art," proclaimed a promotional film from the era.

WPA pieces tend to show ordinary people in an extraordinary light. Factory workers stand silhouetted against towering smokestacks. Carpenters raise hammers in a triumphant expression of the power of work. It's a moment in American art history famous and important enough that collectors now pay thousands of dollars for a single poster.

A 1935 WPA poster encourages application to the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a voluntary public work relief program during the Great Depression. [U.S. Library of Congress]

But money for the program dried up in 1943, amid criticism from the House Un-American Activities Committee that the Federal Art Project (along with sister program the Federal Theater Project) promoted leftist ideals.

Partying for Creativity — and Representation

Left with an artistic legacy that mostly froze in the early 1940s, today public housing developments across the nation are confronting the question of how to make their historic art look more like the people who live there now.

A few years ago, a New York City councilman gave half a million dollars to a program for  youth at five different public housing developments to paint murals about their lives. At another Cleveland development, Riverview on West 25th Street, an artist is wrapping the outside of the community center with photographs of people who live nearby. Other art projects are underway in Denver, Louisville and Tampa.

At Woodhill, though, the next step forward is a party, funded by a small local grant secured by Marilyn Burns and other residents and held on a bright, summer Friday afternoon on the lawn in front of the community center.

Music blares, hot dogs sizzle — and at the center of it all, people gather around a big, black rectangular board on the grass.

Myra Simmons, who lives in the neighborhood nearby, dips her hand into a dish of neon green paint, then presses her palm to the board. Her handprint joins dozens of others in bright pinks and blues, each one signed with the name of the person who made it.

Simmons stands back to look at her work and nods.

"Felt like I was a part of something," she says.

Neighborhood resident Myra Simmons leaves her palm print on the new mural. [Justin Glanville / ideastream]

When the board dries, it will be installed as a mural inside the community center, just yards away from the old murals in the gym.

Nina Silber, a history professor at Boston University, says adding to the stories the original WPA art tells is completely in keeping with the intent of the Federal Art Project.

"The basic message was to kind of capture the sense of the strength, the wisdom, I'd even say the democratic spirit of ordinary people who lived in a place," Silber says.

The completed mural waiting to be installed at Woodhill Homes. [Mary Fecteau / ideastream]

For now, though, efforts to install new art at places like Woodhill will probably remain community-driven and locally funded. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development doesn’t fund art projects at public housing estates, according to HUD spokesperson April Brown. And for the past three years in a row, the Trump administration has called for completely eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, two modern programs regarded as the descendants of the Federal Art Project.

This story is part of a  two-year reporting project about the past, present and future of Cleveland’s Woodhill Homes public housing development .

Justin Glanville is the deputy editor of engaged journalism at Ideastream Public Media.