2 The war had caused a labor shortage in northern industry. Citizens of foreign countries were returning to their native lands.
On May 6, 1935, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was created to provide economic relief to US citizens suffering through the Great Depression. One of the divisions of the WPA was the Federal Art Project (FAP), which operated from 1935 until 1943. The FAP employed artists to create works of art for the Federal Government in exchange for a weekly stipend. FAP artists created more than 200,000 posters, murals, and paintings during the program. Lawrence was hired by the FAP easel division in September 1938. Employed for 18 months, Lawrence submitted two paintings to the division every six weeks. Many of his friends and contemporaries were also employed by the FAP, including Romare Bearden and Augusta Savage, as well as his teacher, Charles Alston.
During the 1920s and ’30s, Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros revitalized the Italian Renaissance fresco style by creating large-scale works celebrating history, culture, and, specifically, the laborer or worker. Inspired by the muralists, Alston and other American artists created similarly themed works for the FAP, images suggesting that America was built on the backs of the hardworking, blue collar man.
In Panel 2, we see what can be interpreted as Lawrence’s reaction to this emphasis on socialism and the worker, with a machine operator as the subject of the panel addressing the shortage in Northern industry due to World War I. Lawrence places the worker at the forefront, looking out to a vast, unpopulated industrial landscape. The blue tones that take up more than half of the painting and the cubist-inspired geometric lines give a cool feel to the composition, similar to the style of Rivera’s murals and similarly themed WPA paintings.