Louis Ribak’s vivid “Hooverville on East Tenth Street” is among the works in “Art for the People: WPA-Era Paintings from the Dijkstra Collection” at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento through May 7. (Collection of Sandra and Bram Dijkstra/Courtesy Crocker Art Museum)

A homeless man hangs his laundry on a line. A woman, laid off from her job, ponders what’s next. A soldier looks at the sky with fear in his eyes. 

Sounds like 2023, but it isn’t.  

“Art for the People: WPA-Era Paintings from the Dijkstra Collection” at the Crocker Museum of Art in Sacramento is well worth the drive from the Bay Area. The show is compelling, and when you’re finished, the Crocker has many incredible artworks to enjoy. It’s a perfect day trip.  

“Art of the People” transports us to the years between the stock market crash in 1929 and World War II, which started in 1939 and ended in 1945. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration provided economic relief to artists during this period. Artists took the money and documented the agony of the Depression, followed by the brutality and racism of the war.   

Here, the everyday person is a hero and a fighter. The work is haunting and honest; the subject matter may remind you of the struggles we face today – economic hardship, racism and international conflict. Artists in the show hail from across the United States, and there are many works by California artists in the collection.  

A force for good 

The government’s steady hand hovers in the background, but in a good way.  

The WPA gave direction to the cultural life of the country during this difficult time, says Scott A. Shields, the Crocker’s Ted and Melza Barr chief curator and associate director.  

“Roosevelt believed that ‘art for the people’ in the form of visual art, music, art classes, posters, plays, and photography funded by the federal government could help unite a nation in turmoil,” Shields says. “Thousands of California artists created sculptures, murals, paintings, and posters for public viewing under the WPA. Struggling musicians, actors and writers found jobs through the music, theater and writing divisions. Each of these artists played a role in enriching a population that was suffering tremendous social, political, and economic hardships.” 

When life as you know it… changes 

Throughout the show, artists depict changes that are beyond our control. We meet people at a moment when they are grieving, making decisions, or simply going about their day.  

In his painting, “Hooverville on East Tenth Street,” Louis Ribak documents a day in a shantytown where homeless are milling around. Some sit idle, while others bathe and chat in the sunshine. Tragic elements hide in plain sight across the canvas. But Ribak’s subjects appear connected, moving their lives forward in the only way they can. 

Californians will recognize the star of Miki Hayakawa’s painting, “From My Window: View of Coit Tower.” The colorful flowers in the foreground grab our attention, and then we meander with Hayakawa to the picturesque landmark. Hayakawa immigrated to California from Japan when she was 9 years old and was subject to the racist policies of the day. When FDR’s Executive Order 9066 forced people of Japanese descent into internment camps in the early 1940s, Hayakawa left California. She settled in New Mexico, where she lived until she died in 1953. 

Miki Hayakawa, who came to the United States from Japan when she was 9, painted “From My Window: View of Coit Tower” in 1935. (Collection of Sandra and Bram Dijkstra/Courtesy Crocker Art Museum)  

Some of the artists use an impasto technique (you can see the brush strokes), while others keep it smooth. Charles White amazes us with bold colors and textures in his flawless tempera “Solider.” Look into this man’s face long enough and it might just bring you to tears.  

Charles White’s 1944 tempera painting “Solider” is moving and bold. (Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, Gift of Sandra and Bram Dijkstra/©Charles White Archives) 

“Art for the People” captures the sense of purpose that artists found during the WPA years. It reminds us of another time, and it also attempts to dispel the myths. 

Shields says WPA-era art has been incorrectly seen as American boosterism.  

“The paintings in this exhibition make clear that for many, many artists, this was anything but true,” Shields says. “By pointing out society’s ills, artists were trying to use their art to make the world a better place.” 

“Art for the People: WPA-Era Paintings from the Dijkstra Collection” runs through May 7 at the Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St., Sacramento. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays, Fridays-Sundays, and until 9 p.m. Thursdays. General admission is $15; free for children. Visit https://www.crockerart.org/exhibitions.