7 Making Art “Work”

Government-Funded Depictions of Labor

Kate Whitney-Schubb

Jacob Lawrence, Eight Builders, 1982, gouache on paper, 33 x 44 3/4 in. (83.8 x 113.7 cm) 40 x 52 x 2 in. (101.6 x 132.1 x 5.1 cm). Seattle City Light 1% for Art Portable Works Collection. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


Defending the practice of art-making is an unspoken, universal skill all artists must possess. Whether it’s in response to criticism or jest, artists uniquely understand that their craft will always remain poorly interpreted by outsiders. And yet, some artists still aspire to make art for the masses—the populous. These artists have seen art that communicates zip to the American layman, and believe they have a new way to communicate. And some of these artists, like Jacob Lawrence, truly do. Lawrence’s art speaks to all and it tells a story. But what makes it legible? What makes his work universal to all Americans? While many critics validly assert that Lawrence’s humanist inspirations heavily originated from African art and his contemporary cubists, his series of paintings surrounding labor and builders speak to a unique influence that only Mexican-muralists and the tropes of 1930s government-funded art could provide—tropes that are political, social, and intended for everyone.

Starting his career in the midst of the Great Depression led Jacob Lawrence to inevitably be influenced by the ways of the art-making trade at the time. In the early 20th century, art was a career of labor. It required skill, craftmanship, complicated tools, and time. These virtues were celebrated and applauded—and they had monetary value. Under FDR’s New Deal, art-making could actually become a way out of economic despair. Though Lawrence began with menial jobs, like construction and newspaper delivery, in 1938 he finally joined the WPA’s easel division in Harlem, New York. From there, his art-working career continued to build, as he transitioned from an employed artist to a self-employed one.

In 1969, Lawrence was offered a faculty position at the University of Washington, and while he could financially rely on this position, Lawrence still continued to produce art of his own and remain heavily engaged with the “working” art world. In 1979, Lawrence finally made his debut into the world of murals, after having been surrounded and inspired by many from his time in Harlem. From there, Lawrence continued to take on government commissions. In July of 1981, Richard Andrews, Coordinator of the Art in Public Places Committee within the Seattle Arts Commission, wrote Lawrence to inquire about adding one of his paintings to the City’s collection. The Work was intended to be featured in the Seattle City Light’s “1% for Art Portable Works Collection” by the end of 1982 and to be displayed in locations with “a great deal of public access” and “excellent exhibition” space. Accessible through the Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight papers, the five-page long contract later sent to Lawrence lists twenty terms that Lawrence must agree to comply to. In line with most government documents, the terms cover anything and everything— “Compliance with Law”, “Non-Destruction/Alteration”, “Excuse and Suspension of Contractual Obligations”, etc. The form is dense, wordy, and frankly, not much of an artistic inspiration. It’s contractual. Among the terms, Lawrence was instructed “to accomplish the following”: to prepare a proposal for the board’s approval by March 12th, 1982, and to complete the work by that October. Payment for the commission was stated as follows:

  1. Price and Payment Schedule. As payment for the services of the Artist and for the completed Work, and subject to the conditions herein, the City shall pay the Artist the total sum of TWENTY THOUSAND AND NO/100 DOLLARS ($20,000.00) upon invoice from the Artist as follows:
  2. a) 40 percent upon approval by the Seattle Arts Commission of the artwork proposal;
  3. b) 40 percent upon one-half completion of the Work;
  4. c) 20 percent upon completion and acceptance of the Work by the Arts Commission.[1]

Within the seven months Lawrence was allotted to complete the Work, he had to additionally handle the transactional side of the Work and meet the strict deadlines and checkpoints—the work was to be expedited and monitored in every way.

Lawrence completed Eight Builders in October of 1982 and the piece now lives within its intended collection. The painting, gouache and tempera on paper, sits at approximately three by four feet. Unsurprisingly featuring eight builders, the composition is full—2x4s flank the top of the frame, while loose work tools are scattered around each builders’ worktop. Abstractly placed in a two-dimensional world, the walls are a creamy blue while the floor is a deep yellow. Red lumber jags into the scene from out of the frame and each worker is caught in an action-filled pose. Their faces are slightly illegible, some have their backs turned to us, others are concentrating on their craft. Their skin tones range from deep brown to a reddish-brown—nothing lighter or whiter. They are clad in blue overalls and dark purple jumpsuits while their limbs remain exposed and toned.

While the legal contract implied the work was made under a rigid, systematic timeline, Lawrence, in theory, had complete artistic freedom. The Arts Commission had been in correspondence with him for years as he had served on boards, had donated works before, and had even completed posters and murals for the City. He was respected and admired for his work holistically and it cannot be doubted that the City of Seattle understood they would be commissioning a piece with deep layers of social, racial, and economic commentary. These themes are undeniably seen in depictions of labor, and Eight Builders doesn’t stray from this. Yet depictions of labor additionally come with their own realm of conversation—a realm that unpacks egalitarianism, industrialism, and capitalism.

Depictions of labor and laborers have long been studied for their political and social messages. Labor is a defining aspect of every American’s quality of life and those that labor to depict it are included. Lawrence’s background working for the Works Progress Administration began his career with the foundation of art as a way to survive. As Julia Bryan-Wilson would call it, he was an “Art Worker”. Bryan-Wilson, an art historian and author of Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era, writes about the common themes of art makers post-depression and the ways in which their work, at the time, was seen as a job just like any other.

Attempts to link art and labor have been central to American modernism. In the 1930s artists of the Works Progress Administration, seeking solidarity with the laborers they depicted, organized the Artists’ Union. Thirty years later, artists tried to rekindle the progressive identity by naming themselves art workers: however, they mainly manifestly refused the aesthetic dimensions of the WPA’s social realism. Art Workers tracks the unprecedented formation in the United States of an advanced, leftist art not committed to populism—that is, not primarily concerned with making its images accessible to the very people with whom these artists asserted a fragile solidarity. At the same time, the book attends to these artists’ commitment to political change and their belief that art matters—that it works.[2]

Bryan-Wilson mainly speaks of white artists, making this generalization a poor fit for Lawrence. While perhaps this assessment is fair for Art Workers, a book published thirty years after the WPA era, a true Art Worker like Lawrence was in fact committed to this social realism. His style is readable, accessible, and emotive. These values clearly were influenced by the aesthetic of the 1930s “art-worker” as his life story was echoed in survival through craft. Though many critics cover the ways in which Lawrence’s initial influences ranged from this social realism to African cubism, Bryan-Wilson’s assertion that art-workers made art work for them rings true in Lawrence’s Eight Builders. Lawrence finds himself reentering the art-working world with this commissioned piece, just as he did under the WPA. Can we extrapolate that Lawrence was inspired to make Eight Builders for the City of Seattle in response to this commissioned “job” and therefore depicted laborers as a self-representation? Or was it the legal contract that reminded him of the labor that carried his career? Regardless, Lawrence’s builder series was legible and for the people—the working people. The series channeled the WPA’s social realism and reignited the unity of labor he got his career started in. From 1946 to 1998, Lawrence spent a lot of time adding to his collection of builder paintings. Labor, construction, and composition were engrained in Lawrence’s mind: “‘repetitive form’ was ‘a part of…building the composition, the design, creating a certain tension…. It’s part of the structure, part of the building of the painting, part of the composition,” Lawrence explained to a fellow artist in 1968.[3] While perhaps Lawrence also thought like a builder, he was paid to work like one too.

An easily observed theme of Lawrence’s life work is his genius in story-telling, epics, and modernist form, yet all of these virtues were heavily influenced by Lawrence’s upbringing in Harlem. Growing up amidst the Harlem Renaissance exposed a young Lawrence to a creative, cultured, and artistic community. One creative, in particular, was Aaron Douglas, a prolific Black artist and activist. Douglas was the first president of the Harlem Artist Guild which was founded in 1929, which advocated for Black artists struggling to find work despite WPA efforts.  While the WPA successfully employed thousands, thousands were still struggling. In his own art practice, Douglas was best known for modernist work that told the story of Black Americans through an authentic Black eye—not a white-washed version. Douglas’s signature works channeled both cubist and African influences, notably seen in his Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery to Reconstruction murals which hang in the 135th Street Library. Predictably, this was one of the libraries Lawrence grew up visiting.[4]

An additional Harlem influence was Charles Aston, who was the director of the WPA’s Harlem Mural Project at the time. Lawrence was Aston’s pupil and learned from him while he was working on murals for the Harlem Hospital. Surrounded by muralists, it’s no surprise Lawrence channeled their influence in his later work. It’s important to note, however, Alston and Douglas had to find their inspiration somewhere too. Gwendolyn Shaw, author of “Migration and Muralism: New Negro Artists and Socialist Art” writes, “One of the most significant attractions of Mexican muralism to African American artists was the movement’s emphasis on calling out economic inequality and migration-related racial violence, in both the history and contemporary reality of both nations.”[5] Muralled epics became a fortified genre in the 1920s and 30s, most famously pioneered by greats such as Diego Rivera and José Orozco. Muralled epics had been the decoration of Lawrence’s childhood—depictions of survival, history, and unity. “Learning to draw and color under the tutelage of Charles Alston at the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Harlem Art Workshop Lawrence again drew on this environment: ‘the…brightly colored ‘Oriental’ rugs covering the floors at home…their configurations and their repetitions, in their geometry, and the diversity of their colors.’”[6] His influencers surrounded him with a deep history of craft and culture. Though as stated earlier, critics often reference his modern, cubist contemporaries, such as Stuart Davis and Josef Albers—this comparison innately ties to their style, not their content, and Lawrence himself said one can’t exist without the other. While we can say simple forms, primary colors, and geometric compositions grace all of Lawrence’s work, these stylistic choices, epitomized in his builder series, seem to coalesce in an even more interesting way—they transcend his individual style and speak more to a common trope in public, government-commissioned art.

Commissioned, public art is a fragile medium—there are many stakeholders involved. And while Eight Builders sits nicely within Lawrence’s larger body of work surrounding labor, this painting was a commissioned piece which makes it unique and susceptible to further analysis: did Lawrence subconsciously fulfill the trope of depicting labor for government-funded art? Were digestible, modernist art forms employed out of government influence? What is this fascination with public, government-funded art focusing on labor?

After the economic crash of 1929, Roosevelt’s New Deal finally allowed the nation to rebuild. And while Americans needed work, American artists were working to capture it. Over the following ten years, the Works Progress Administration and Farm Security Administration created a complete archive of photographs, paintings, murals, and other art forms that documented America’s newfound love of labor and laborers that rebuilt America. But this fascination continued to arise. David Ward, author of “The Face of Labor: Portraying the American Worker” writes:

Character traits of the ideal artisan included his completeness and self-sufficiency, the harmony among head, hands, and heart that was expressed by his dexterity in wielding the tools of his trade. Dependent on his own skill, the artisan was self-reliant. His labor was indicative of his honesty: his character was written in the objects he made, and those objects rebounded to create the open countenance with which he greeted the world.[7]

The fascination was more than just how our nation operated—it was about how we operated. Ward speaks of strong character and world-outlook—depictions of labor spoke to all mankind and reassured an engaged community (an often minority-filled community) that through hard work we would survive and be seen. Jonathan Weinberg, an art historian and author of “I Want Muscle: Male Desire and the Image of the Worker in American Art of the 1930s,” adds to this notion in claiming the worker to be “not so much a hero as an object of compassion… a model of American action and integrity.”[8] Through the WPA, public declarations (government-funded declarations) reinforced that America runs on your labor.

The WPA, and even Seattle City Light in 1982, understood that public art made a statement—it was a message to the people. And these ideals seeped into other aspects of depictions of labor as government bodies identified the possibilities of public art. The New Deal “encouraged imagery that suggested that the American male was already hard at work in traditionally masculine occupations. At the same time…the increasing organization of workers into industrial unions in the 1930s legitimized images of labor that emphasized both the individual and the collective.”[9] It was clear that government-funded programs had discovered the best way to communicate with the working class and keep moral high. And while many of Lawrence’s series pertained to much darker epics of African American history, Eight Builders seems to echo a more unionized, universal message for all of working-class America: “despite the representation of vigorous activity in these scenes, there is a calm purposeful determination, which emphasizes the commitment of the participants not only to complete the task at hand but, as has been noted, to build a sense of pride and a spirit of racial harmony in the process.”[10]Labor carried Jacob Lawrence throughout his lifetime, and Lawrence understood this was a message the City of Seattle, and fellow Seattle-ites, would want to hear.


  1. Pat Fuller to Jacob Lawrence, May 9, 1977. Box 4, Folder 21, Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight papers, 1816, 1914-2008, bulk 1973-2001. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
  2. Bryan-Wilson, Julia. Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era. University of California Press, 2010.
  3. Sims, Lowery Stokes. “The Structure of Narrative: Form and Content in Jacob Lawrence’s Builders Paintings, 1946-1998” in Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence, edited by Peter T. Nesbett and Michelle DuBois, 201-228. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press in association with Jacob Lawrence Catalogue Raisonné Project, 2000. Pg. 203
  4. Shaw, Gwendolyn DuBois. “Migration and muralism: new negro artists and socialist art” from Vida Americana: Mexican muralists remake American Art 1925-1945.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Sims, “The Structure of Narrative: Form and Content in Jacob Lawrence’s Builders Paintings, 1946-1998” Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press in association with Jacob Lawrence Catalogue Raisonné Project, 2000.
  7. Ward, David. “The Face of Labor: Portraying the American," in The Sweat of Their Face: Portraying the American Worker. Smithsonian Institution Press, October 31, 2017.
  8. Weinberg, Jonathan. “I Want Muscle: Male Desire and the Image of the Worker in American Art of the 1930s” from Male Desire: The Homoerotic in American Art, May 1, 2005.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Sims, “The Structure of Narrative: Form and Content in Jacob Lawrence’s Builders Paintings, 1946-1998” Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press in association with Jacob Lawrence Catalogue Raisonné Project, 2000.


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Jacob Lawrence in Seattle Copyright © 2021 by Kate Whitney-Schubb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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