"Old Iron for Japan" a WPA lithograph from 1936 and a 1938 protest

After this column was published in the newspaper, a neighbor of mine dropped over.  He remembered  scrap metal recycling for Japan in Berkeley in the 1930s. He was also stationed in Japan during the US occupation in 1945-1946.

This lithograph was done in 1936.  Artist Glenn Wessels was employed by the Federal Arts Program of the WPA

This lithograph was done in 1936.  Artist Glenn Wessels was employed by the Federal Arts Program of the WPA

Q.   Enclosed is a picture of a black and white scene of a cargo boat at a dock. The title “Old Iron for Japan 36” and a signature are written in pencil.  On the front is a plaque reading “Federal Arts Project” I cannot read the signature so anything you can find out about the print or the artist would be appreciated.

A.  Your lithograph print captures a sliver of time when between the Great Depression and the beginning of the Second World War when previously cordial economic allegiances between the US and Japan began to erode. In 1936, the artist himself, Glenn Anthony Wessels might have felt rumblings.

According to Edan Hughes’  “Artists in California 1786-1940”, Glenn Anthony Wessels was born in Cape Town South Africa in 1895 but he was really a product of Northern California.  He received his BFA from Oakland’s California College of Arts and Crafts and his MA from Cal; he later taught at both colleges.  In the 1930s he worked as an artist and technical supervisor for part of the Federal Arts Project.

The Federal Arts Project was part of Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Projects Administration (WPA). Designed to combat high unemployment of the depression times, the Federal Arts Project paid artists about $23.00 per week to produce a specified number of works and public murals. Wessels himself worked on murals at the Alameda County Courthouse, Oakland Civic Auditorium and Laguna Honda Hospital; as a Federally appointed supervisor for the Oakland area, it is possible but undocumented that he influenced other muralists.

At the same time the US was in its great Depression, Japan was growing as an economic powerhouse.  Their burgeoning economy was, however, held in check somewhat by the lack of raw materials in Japan. Japan was dependent on western resources – particularly metal and oil from the US. 

Attitudes towards Japan began to change in after Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931.  Feelings ran high in Europe and Australia where it was felt that the US was supporting Japan by supplying raw materials – especially scrap iron - used for armaments.  Atrocities by Japan against Chinese civilians in 1937, Japans alliance to German and Italy, and Hitler’s support of Japanese expansion into Asia triggered protests in the US.   By 1940, Roosevelt had put economic sanctions in place and stopped the export of scrap metal to Japan.

Protest march on San Francisco waterfront, 1938

Protest march on San Francisco waterfront, 1938

In 1941 the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. In 1943, due to the surging wartime economy in the US, the Federal Arts Project and the Works Projects Administration ended.

Glenn Anthony Wessel, like so many artists of his generation, stove to capture the realism of everyday life in the first half of the 20th century with an almost documentary efficiency.  In addition to his local murals, Wessels work can be found at the Seattle Art Museum and the Oakland Museum of California; the Achenbach Collection at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco has a print of this very lithograph.

The markets for 20th century realism and the markets for works by former WPA artists are strong.  Your lithograph, “Old Iron for Japan” would likely sell in the $200-400 range.