The Great Depression of the 1930s gave birth to the Works Progress Administration, the largest government agency created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The WPA created nearly eight million jobs for skilled workers and is responsible for many public works projects across the United States.
In the mid-to-late 1930s, the agency came to Gresham to remodel Gresham High School’s main wing and build an auditorium and gym. Four sets of bas-relief artwork were created by the WPA, however, only three of the sculptures were installed. One of the four pieces of artwork was called the “lost” artwork that was never installed and was lost and forgotten over time. Harold Weber, assistant principal of the high school at the time, remembered,
Hank Kane, an Irishman, was boss of that WPA crew. He really made them work! Claude Stockton was hired by the school as their liaison with the WPA. We had no business manager for the schools at that time, and as Assistant Principal, I was assigned to check all the bills and present them to the school board. To my recollection, the [bas-relief] was never mounted on the outside of the building, nor was it mounted inside the auditorium. It’s a puzzle as to just where it was!
The bas-relief that now resides inside the Gresham History Museum above the door was created as part of the Gresham High renovation by the WPA in the 1930s. It is comprised of casting plaster reinforced with strands of horse hair laid lengthwise. The lost artwork was discovered in May 1990 by then-Drama Director Michelle McAllister in the drama attic above the Auditorium and it was donated to the Gresham Historical Society.
Classical Greek influences are apparent in the composition and symbolism: the man and woman holding tablets; the lamp and torch of knowledge; the triangle and compass symbolizing the sciences; and the artist’s palette representing the arts. The laurel wreath is a symbol of academic honor, fitting in a piece that was commissioned for a school. The broken column is a mystery—as a symbol, it is most often found on gravestones and indicates a life cut short.
Joan Fuller, a retired Gresham High School art teacher, repaired the woman’s nose and a four-inch section of the upper right edge using plaster donated by the Bricker-Brac Shop in Gresham. The bas-relief was then cleaned and sealed with acrylic spray to prevent further damage.
We regret that we are not able to welcome visitors to the Museum due to the Covid-19 coronavirus and we look forward to the day when we can open our doors again. In the meantime, we need your help and support. Become a member today and join our dedicated volunteers at an upcoming work session to learn to handle and care for our collections at the Museum on June 27 at 2:00 pm with proper social-distancing. Since we are closed, we have no income and we hope you will consider donating now to help us bridge the gap. For more information, go to our website: www.greshamhistorical.org or call us as 503-661-0347.