There’s a new Greenbelt Museum exhibit in the Community Center that I highly recommend – it’s about the New Deal Art of Lenore Thomas Straus, whose work we see on that building and in Roosevelt Center.
There I learned that Thomas Straus was only in her 20s when she carved several important works in Greenbelt in the late 1930s: “Mother & Child” (c.1939) in Roosevelt Center, the bas reliefs depicting the Preamble to the U. S. Constitution, which were carved in place on the front of the Community Center, and the Woman sculpture, on the grounds of that building.
The artist had been working for the Resettlement Administration since 1935 and had also done work for that agency in what’s now Roosevelt, New Jersey, and for Langston Terrace in DC, which opened in ’38.
Lenore Thomas moved to Accokeek , Maryland in ’36, she soon married Robert Straus. They helped establish Moyaone Reserve and lived there for 40 years. In 1975 Lenore moved to Maine, where she got involved in Zen Buddhismi and kept making art and teaching it until she died in 1988. Her work, typical of the Social Realism style, has been shown at major US galleries.
According to the Museum, “The exhibit includes photographs of the artist and her work, documents from the Resettlement Administration, examples of her sculpture and much more. Interactive children’s elements will include a dress-up station where children can don overalls and goggles, just as the artist did and children will have an opportunity to design their own bas reliefs depicting the constitution on paper.”
Favorite Facts Previously Unknown to Me
“Mother and Child,” which she worked on for over a year, is the last sculpture she did for the RA and it cost $995 for materials and set-up, plus her pay from the WPA of $5.40 per day. The sculpture proved controversial (not universally admired) and was called “Buddha.” Also, it was apparently mistreated by teenagers regularly during the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s – having burning tires thrown onto it, for example. So beginning in ’93, “concerned citizens” began protecting it over Halloween weekend.
About the bas-relief depicting the Preamble, it was all her idea, as was the notion of illustrating the ideas with deliberately average Americans. The only part of her original scheme that was rejected was the depiction of “Establish Justice” as a lynching going on while a judge turns his back on it.
And in a 1975 interview Thomas Straus described the figures in the “Common Defense” panel as “robot-like soldiers invading a peaceful country,” while the family in the scene symbolized resistance to war.
That’s Social Realism for ya – art with a message, typically focused on the hardships of everyday life.
The exhibition is supported by the Maryland Heritage Area Authority, The City of Greenbelt, Prince George’s County Council member Todd M. Turner, 4th District, the Estate of Sue Hoya Sellars, and the Friends of the Greenbelt Museum.
Exhibit credits: Curator Megan Searing Young. Educational Programming Sheila Maffay-Tuthill. Research Assistant Jennifer Sparenburg. Graphic Design Nora Simon.