From 1935 and 1942, under Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, unemployed artists across the country produced over 35,000 poster designs in exchange for government stipends. The WPA Poster Project, as it was called, not only produced a wealth of public service posters that now serve as extraordinary archives of the graphic design of the period. It also had a lesser-known but equally important effect on design history–by popularizing the use of screen printing.
That’s thanks to Anthony Velonis, an artist and printmaker living in New York during the Great Depression. In 1934, Velonis was hired by the Civilian Work Administration as a poster artist under Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. At the time, screen printing was mostly used for textiles and large backgrounds for department store windows, but Velonis had been introduced to the process two years prior. Before he joined the CWA, he and another graphic artist Fritz Brosius had run their own printing shop out of Velonis’s cousin’s place in Astoria.
In 1936, the mayor’s poster program was reassigned to the Federal Arts Project of the WPA, which hired hundreds of artists to create public service posters and workplace safety guides. When Velonis joined the WPA, the artists were painstakingly painting each poster by hand. He saw the need for an organized system of mass production, and recognized that screen printing could be used for more than just a commercial purposes.
So he got the green light from Richard Floethe, the head of the poster division at the time, created a makeshift screen-printing operation and started experimenting. Here’s Velonis in a 1965 interview for the Archives of American Art New Deal and the Arts Project:
It’s very inexpensive relatively, you know–screen process to start, and we didn’t have a rack in those days, we designed a rack for us to print on, to dry the prints, the posters and so forth. That was useful, because we’d have editions of several hundred to a thousand, five thousand pieces which we delivered to various departments…. It was experimental. And this continued. Naturally, with all the easel painters around us and the fact that my own orientation was painting and so forth, and sculpture, we put two and two together. I said, “This is a great medium for the artist. Look what it can do–with the least possible expense you can make all kind of things.”
It was a perfect printing method for the WPA Poster division: it was cheap, efficient and could be done in the same studio as the designs were made. The artists were able to see their work from conception to realization. According to a 1978 , the WPA Poster Project produced 2 million silk-screened posters and 35,000 original designs in studios across the country. These posters are still remarkable today for their striking aesthetic and colorful pop-art quality.
To differentiate the new use of screen printing as a fine art medium from its commercial use, Velonia coined the term serigraphs. “I thought that ‘silkscreen process’ was kind of cumbersome, and it sounded commercial besides,” Velonia told the Library of Congress in 1994. “And I thought we had to have something not quite so generic, something more specific, and that was serigraphy.”
Later in the same interview, Velonia describes the WPA Poster Project as a significant moment in history for art, not just because of the funding but also because so many talented people were working for a common cause. “I couldn’t imagine a better art university than the mixture of artists that came together at that time,” he said. “It was very exciting.”
All Images (unless otherwise noted): Anthony Velonis/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division