Carl Peters' WPA Murals

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Carl Peters' mural, Active Life, at its original location in Madison High School

When the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Arts Project (often abbreviated as WPA/FAP, or just FAP) first came to Rochester in 1936, Carl Peters was one of ten artists from the city employed by the federal government to work on various public art projects. Peters was just one of many young artists trying to make a living from their work after growing up in a working-class immigrant family, and as he approached forty years old, he had a family with two young daughters to support. Though Peters had gained some notoriety in Rochester for his art, he still struggled financially. As the Great Depression hit, there wasn’t much money being invested in the arts, and people were not buying paintings very much. This had a devastating impact on artists all around the country, especially if they had already been struggling before the Depression.

When Peters went to the Memorial Art Gallery to apply for the Federal Arts Project, he knew that the nature of the position would mean giving away the independence, flexibility, and creativity of the painting process since he would be working for a federal patron to uphold the values of the WPA. This led Peters to apply as a muralist rather than an easel painter even though creating smaller landscape paintings was his passion because, in his own words, “I didn’t want to give my own work away."[42]

As Peters began working for the WPA/FAP in Rochester, he was set to work on several large murals to go in school auditoriums. During his early adulthood, Peters had become known for landscape paintings, which were his passion for much of his career. However, he had a great deal of training that made him uniquely prepared for working on such large-scale projects. From his first job assisting with scenery painting for plays, to his anatomy and figure drawing classes at the Art Students League, culminating in his completion of the grand mural for the Genesee Valley Trust Company, Peters had plenty of experience that guaranteed his ability to complete the job.[43]