The Protest Artist
Richard Correll Was Endearing, but His Prints Are Fierce
University of Washington Libraries Special Collections, Richard V. Correll Prints and Papers
Far from the sliding glass doors and blinking computers and information desks, down in the basement of Allen Library at the University of Washington, there's a stark exhibition of black-and-white prints on paper: a mother so gaunt that she looks like a robot, with two children burying their faces in her ungiving chest (Hunger, 1937). A line of striking farm workers carrying placards across the horizon, with rows of crops rising up to join them (Vineyard March, 1970). A night scene: paddy wagon parked outside the house, three officers with batons, one holding back the wife, one pushing the husband into the truck, the third in the shadows, his baton lifted, about to crack down on an unseen someone on the ground (Raid, 1956). Each image is a powerful and beautifully designed print informed by the expressionism, abstraction, and muralism of early-20th-century worldwide art. The artist is Richard V. Correll, a scarcely known Works Progress Administration artist in Seattle in the 1930s. In his time, he was recognized as a master printmaker. He also protested on behalf of every good cause of the 20th century.
The Allen Library exhibition contains black-and-white linoleum cuts, etchings, and woodblock prints recently donated to the Labor Archives of Washington State. Correll, we're told, was as gentle as his art was fierce, and there's one infinitely endearing photograph of him in old age, holding a protest sign he created (that's also on display) that depicts Ronald Reagan posed as Uncle Sam: "I want your Social Security dollars for U.S. military."
Correll was a founding member of the Washington Artists' Union, he marched with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers from Delano to Sacramento, and he spent the bulk of his life in New York and California, where he died.
But he left a mark on Seattle. His murals of Paul Bunyan clearing trees to create Tacoma and taming Puget Sound remain at a high school in Bremerton. While working in the federal WPA program, he also contributed weekly cartoons to the Communist Party paper Voice of Action, and in 1936 he illustrated the incredible Northwest Labor Calendar. Its rich pages are a highlight of the exhibition. On one page, he brought to contemplative life Eugene Debs's call for "a thinker in overalls." The calendar narrates a fascinating local labor history timeline: "December 16, 1918: Seattle longshoremen voted to refuse to load munitions intended for use against the U.S.S.R.... November 19, 1919: Printers at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer struck to force the removal from that paper of a hysterical anti-labor advertisement..." What a distant world.