Feldaker art collection at Mercantile Library is true labor of love

For more of Nancy Kranzberg’s commentary, listen to KWMU (90.7) St. Louis on the Air the first Friday of each month at approximately 12:50 p.m. She also hosts a weekly Arts Interview podcast for KDHX (88.1), available at artsinterview.kdhxtra.org.

By Nancy Kranzberg, Special to the Jewish Light

A few years ago, I went to see the musical “Billy Elliot” at The Muny in Forest Park. The story takes place in the coal fields of northern England, where mining had been the major employer for hundreds of years.

Sad, depressed Willie Loman, the protagonist in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” and his struggle and failure came to mind and the fact that work and labor are common themes in art was very much apparent.

My fellow St. Louis Art Museum docent friend Bruce Feldaker is one-half of the namesake of the Bruce and Barbara Feldaker Collection of Labor Art at the Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. I asked him why and how he began collecting art dealing with labor. He told me that as an attorney, his specialty was labor and employment law, so it was a natural for him. He said that at first he saw the art as decorative and then began to see the work as a collection of social and economic issues.

The Feldaker Collection consists of approximately 450 paintings, prints, drawings and sculpture on the theme of labor and the role of the laborer in America. While focusing on this subject as the primary guide for acquisition decisions, Bruce also gave weight to local and regional artists in selecting works. As a result, the collection has a remarkable breadth of style as well as a chronological depth, both of which contribute to its strength as a teaching tool in the areas of American art and American labor history.

In the collection are works by Thomas Hart Benton, whose works often deal with laborers and work, and who believed that working-class people have the greatest impact on history. One of my favorite of Benton’s works, “Cradling Wheat,” can be seen at SLAM and of course his famous mural in the state capitol in Jefferson City is well worth a trip to view.

The Detroit Institute of Arts features Mexican artist Diego Rivera’s Industry and Technology as the Indigenous Culture of Detroit in his famous mural on the walls of the institution. The mural is a tribute to the city’s manufacturing base and labor force of the 1930s.

The Feldaker Collection also features art by internationally famous Ben Shahn, whose work dealt with themes of modern urban art and organized labor. In addition, the collection features pieces by Joe Jones, who was from St. Louis and rose to national prominence with themes of workers and their plight. Some of the titles of his work were “We Demand,” “Demonstration” and “New Deal.” A few years ago, the St. Louis Art Museum recently had an exhibition of his works from the Rex Sinquefield Collection.

Walking around the art museum, I saw the work of African-American artist Jacob Lawrence entitled “Builders #1,” which presents a hopeful allegory of African-American life. A carpenter sits at a workbench surrounded by a fantastic array of tools and fasteners. The mountains behind him mirror his strength. This is the first expression of a theme that Lawrence would return to for the rest of his career. And of course there’s George Caleb Bingham’s “Jolly Flatboatmen in Port” showing workers relaxing as day is ending and the work day has come to an end.

Bruce Feldaker also reminded me that Europeans addressed themes of work and labor before the Americans. He referred to the French Realist painters and I remembered an exhibit on the works of these painters some years ago at SLAM.

An article by Katie Fischer talks of Courbet’s painting “Stonebreakers.” Courbet’s work are an example of the emphasis on the ordinary that is central to the realist movement. “Stonebreakers” depicts two peasants unceremoniously completing their daily labor. Their bodies are not overly muscular or beautiful and are not idealized in any way, rather they are ordinary in appearance, and their actions appear tiresome and tedious rather than dramatic and heroic.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA), established in 1935, employed millions of unemployed people. One  WPA initiative  (Federal Project Number One) employed musicians, artists, and writers, actors and directors in large arts, drama, media, and literary projects. 

An old proverb says, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” So let’s go watch the Cardinals play baseball next month and let the players do all the work while we relax.