Art gallery rises from beneath dust

“The Era of the Dustbowl” features lithographs of Oswego during the 1930s and early 40s.  (Eric Muldoon | The Oswegonian)
“The Era of the Dustbowl” features lithographs of Oswego during the 1930s and early 40s. (Eric Muldoon | The Oswegonian)

Oswego State students, through the Oswego Reading Initiative and now a gallery, are learning more about the Dust Bowl, an important part of American History.

Though the Dust Bowl did not quite affect the East Coast as much as it did the Midwest, the art gallery in Tyler Hall, “The Era of the Dustbowl,” highlights the struggle of people in Oswego.

The gallery was inspired by the Reading Initiative, which for this year chose Timothy Egan’s novel, “The Worst Hard Time.” Egan wrote 312 pages of history detailing the life of dust-bowlers, (residents of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and southeast Colorado) who dealt with years of intense and life-threatening sand storms and poverty. As highlighted by Egan in his book, former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created many jobs for artists throughout the country. FDR created the Farm Security Administration and sent three photographers to Oswego during the 1930s and early 40s.

Whether students have read the book or not, the exhibit is entertaining for students and members of the Oswego community, as 36 of the photographs in the gallery were taken of people and places in Oswego by the three FSA photographers: Arthur Rothstein, Marjorie Collins and John Collier.  The photographs depict the common family dealing with every day activities, like married couples eating dinner, people having fun during United Nations week or even two young paper boys distributing the Palladium Times.

The artwork in the gallery is all work that Oswego State had in its collection in Tyler Hall. There are 22 lithographs, which are limited edition prints made by artists that were kept in the Grant Arnold Collection of Fine Prints, which has over 500 prints from different artists. Lithographs are prints made from inked limestone plates pressed against paper.

The prints in the gallery were powerful, and each represented a different struggle during the 1930’s.Along with Flanagan, student intern Marci Zebrowski, a graduate student currently at SUNY Albany, went through the prints and found matching documentation from within Egan’s book to match and support the prints. This led to perfect captions for the prints, reflecting the difficult times during the 30s.

The prints highlighted everyday events, like a farmer controlling a horse or a hobo running after a train. Some prints highlighted religious aspects of the time, like a print of a church from the Arnold collection. Beneath the print is an excerpt from Egan’s book, depicting a scene where a baby was found near death wrapped in a coat before the church door.  For those that read the book, this print draws quite the image of that particular scene, and for those just reading the insert for the first time, it has a similar nostalgic feel.

A fantastic addition to the gallery is the authentic horse plow that Michael Flanagan, exhibit director, happened upon.

Flanagan saw the top of the plow sticking out above the ground in someone’s front lawn in Granby, a town in Oswego County. He stopped his car and knocked on the door, asking for permission to dig up the plow and haul it to the gallery. Barbara Lyman willingly lent the horse drawn plow out, and it is now complimenting the gallery with history and relevance.

Because the government-funded video “The Plow That Broke the Plains,” from 1936 is in the public domain, Flanagan has the video set up in the exhibit for viewers. This is the video referred to in Egan’s book, which makes it even more exciting, as readers who only read about the production will now be to actually watch the documentary.

The posters promoting Egan’s arrival to Oswego State can be seen all throughout campus and were created by Julia Baldovin. Baldovin’s work was chosen from a group of graphic design students who created Oswego Reading Initiative posters. In the gallery, Baldovin’s poster is enlarged and beautifully colored. On display are the three other posters made by other students from the department.

The artwork in this gallery is in all black and white, but the images within each piece of art capture the range of color different people have.  Some pictures truly capture the struggle, while other pictures capture the simplicity of a family laughing over a meal and a glass of wine.  Each person or object represented by the prints and photographs have a story to tell, and, thanks to Mr. Flanagan and his team, these stories can be shared with the community. Egan will be visiting campus Wednesday, Sept. 25.